Maggie & Me

Jun 13 2024 | By More

★★★☆☆     Resonant but unwieldy

Traverse: Wed 12 – Sat 15 Jun 2024
Review by Hugh Simpson

The National Theatre of Scotland’s Maggie & Me, touring to the Traverse, is an odd beast indeed. It has a great deal to say about both the personal and the political, but some of it is lost in an over-ambitious, wildly inconsistent production.

The play is an adaptation of Damian Barr’s 2013 memoir about growing up gay in a homophobic atmosphere in North Lanarkshire. Margaret Thatcher’s passing of the appalling Section 28, designed to ‘stop the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities and schools’, does nothing for public acceptance of anyone who does not fit in with the image of the traditional ‘hard man’.

That Thatcher is simultaneously destroying the local community, by closing the Ravenscraig steel works, is an irony that makes her a constant presence in young Damian’s life.

A man stands looking at a younger man in a school uniform.

Gary Lamont and Sam Angell in Maggie & Me. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

The adaptation, by Barr and James Ley, shows an adult Damian, known as DB (Gary Lamont), attempting to write said memoir in 2008. As deadlines fly by, a therapist encourages DB to confront the traumas in his past, and he interacts with a younger version of himself, Wee DB (Sam Angell).

This framing device just about works, although it takes a terribly long time to get going, and the portrayal of writers struggling to write is not always as fascinating for an audience as writers themselves sometimes like to believe.

forceful and effective

Barr and Ley’s script, however, treats challenging (and frequently extremely bleak) subject matter with tact and suitable weight as well as humanity and a great deal of humour. Lamont and Angell are both very fine, with Angell’s depiction of Wee DB at different ages from eight to sixteen being a real star turn.

Beth Marshall’s portrayal of Thatcher is also a forceful and effective one. However, how the character is written does point to one of the play’s drawbacks. There is an obvious wish to present a more human figure than is often attempted, but this largely backfires.

A man watches as Margaret Thatcher throws books into a trolley, holding up a proclamation that reads ‘Section 28’.

Gary Lamont and Beth Marshall in Maggie & Me. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Cartoonish and talking largely in soundbites of self-help individualism, this is the figure half-remembered from impersonations or Spitting Image puppets, rather the real thing, which was more nuanced and a great deal more chilling. Why she seemed to have a particular animus towards industrial Scotland, or to anyone who didn’t fit her particular fantasy of a Victorian family, is not adequately explored.

This is not the only thing about the production that comes across as one-dimensional. There are frequent primary-coloured evocations of TV game shows, US soaps and karaoke, which do not all come off by any means.

struggling to fulfil the brief

The whole production is episodic, with some events hammered home and others left more elliptical. The tone shifts considerably from one moment to the next, and it is quite simply far too long. Not just by a few minutes, but by an hour at least. It is as if someone decided that this had to be a grand statement of a production, of huge proportions, varied styles and long running time, and stuck resolutely to this plan even when the end result was struggling to fulfil the brief.

A woman dressed a country music star, with big blonde hair, a checkered jumpsuit and silver tassels is standing on a platform. Two back-up singers in cowboy hats are standing on a staircase. ‘Oppor-chancity Knocks’ is displayed on all the screens.

Nicola Jo Cully, Grant McIntyre and Joanne Thompson in Maggie & Me. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

The ensemble backing up the central performances – Nicola Jo Cully, Grant McIntyre, Douglas Rankine and Joanne Thomson – are uniformly excellent, and it is no slight on them that many of the characters they play (in some cases into double figures) could easily have been cut.

Despite the end result being baggy, and at times awkward, there is still a great deal going on here that is very good. The central story, buried though it is, comes across with real force, and its resonances remain horribly contemporary.

highly evocative

Kenneth MacLeod’s set, a stylised writer’s shed that can contain a bing or Carfin grotto, is impressive. The use of vintage televisions for Tim Reid’s video design is also clever, although (like so much else) overdone. Susan Bear’s sound design is also noteworthy and highly evocative.

The direction of Suba Das manages to keep momentum going during some of the more unsure moments. The end result is extremely frustrating, and decidedly clunky, but still has real impact.

Running time: Two hours and 50 minutes (including one interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Wednesday 12 – Saturday 16 June 2024
Daily at 7.30 pm; Matinee Sat 2.30 pm
Details and tickets: Book here.

A man is on his knees praying. He is in a holy place, with marble statues, crosses and neon lights.

Gary Lamont and Beth Marshall in Maggie & Me. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic


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