Maggie May review – deft dementia drama underscores the power of memory | Theatre

Frances Poet has form when it comes to dramatising illness. Her play Fibres (2019) was about a shipyard worker and his wife living with asbestosis. The cast of ailing characters in Still (2021) included a woman with chronic pain. Maggie May, delayed from 2020 because of the pandemic, is about dementia.

The writer plays a trick on us when it looks certain her focus will be on Tony Timberlake’s Gordon. He is the one snoring – well, snorting – in the bed after a blockage has caused a stroke. We assume he is in a bad way. Turns out he is fine. Timberlake plays him as genial and loving. He is as patient and forgiving as he is quick to burst into song.

The subject is in fact our narrator, Maggie, who is resisting the news that her recent forgetfulness has not been caused by depression but by Alzheimer’s. Played superbly by Eithne Browne, she has a hard-nosed Yorkshire brusqueness, a hit-and-run wit and gallons of bottled-up passion. The Post-it notes covering the ceiling of Francis O’Connor’s set flutter down to guide her through the day. In a foggy mood, she can scarcely make sense of them.

Poet is strong on the human stresses this creates. In moments of lucidity, Maggie can see the cruelty she inflicts on best friend Jo (Maxine Finch), the anger she rouses in her son Michael (Mark Holgate) and the confusion she causes to would-be daughter-in-law Claire (Shireen Farkhoy). In Jemima Levick’s uncluttered production, Poet plays on the power of memory both to define us and to nourish us. The thought of Maggie losing herself is alarming. That she will also lose the memory of her newborn baby’s skin is heartbreaking.

All of this illustrates well the mixed emotional bag of bewilderment, humour and terror the condition provokes. But as with so many plays about illness, Maggie May presents no dilemma to be debated, just a condition to be experienced. In dramatic terms, Alzheimer’s has no resolution. That means the story has no inevitable place to end. For all the musical interludes, the play feels more televisual than theatrical, a sharply observed set of character studies, but a situation no one can change.

  • At Leeds Playhouse until 21 May. Then at Queen’s theatre, Hornchurch, 24–28 May and Curve, Leicester, 7–11 June.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.