Saturday, February 4

Maggie May change minds at Leeds Playhouse

In the UK there are nearly a million people living with dementia, and Leeds Playhouse’s new play Maggie May follows an ordinary woman’s journey through Alzheimer’s Disease.

Like so many Maggie is devastated by her diagnosis trying to hide it from loved ones who offer support as she finds a way to live a fulfilling and rewarding life on her own terms.

Given the sensitivities of the subject matter that impacts on so many families award-winning writer Frances Poet has worked really closely with people living with dementia to give Maggie an authentic voice as she makes sense of her new world.

Our Yorkshire Editor Paul Clarke found out more from Brookside legend Eithne Browne about the challenges and joy of playing Maggie.

Tell me a little bit about Maggie?

She ran the school kitchen, she made dinner for 500 children a day. In other words, she’s very capable. She can be very brusque, it’s her way to be sharp, but she’s also very loving and very funny. I don’t think she’s ever been anybody’s fool. 

But it’s not just about Maggie’s journey is it?

Her and her husband, Gordon, have a wonderful partnership. I really feel they’ve had a good life together. Maggie is full of spirit, she says exactly what she thinks, and she feels things very deeply

What are the signs something is changing?

We’re not sure at first what’s happening with her. We know her husband Gordon has had a stroke, but we don’t quite know what’s happening with Maggie. There are little hints along the way, and then we realise what she has been coping with when we come to a denouement at her son’s birthday. It all comes out that she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

What is the reaction from her family?

They thought at first it might be cognitive impairment caused by depression, so Maggie had been on anti-depressants, and was trying to think herself happy. But it turns out that it’s not that at all. Once she gets her diagnosis, she starts to hide. She doesn’t want the shame of other people knowing that she’s not who she was.

Photo: Zoe Martin

How does Maggie react?

When you’ve seen your son looking up at you like you’re his everything, you’ll do anything to protect him and keep him happy, even lie. She pushes her son and her best friend away. She doesn’t want them to know, but there are clues though, little notes all around the place as reminders. She wants to cook her favourite signature dish for her son’s birthday, but she has to write herself reminders because she’s scared she won’t be able to remember the recipe. She’s scared she’ll show herself up in front of her son and his new girlfriend. 

Sounds like this could be a really tough watch?

During the play, her defences start to be chipped away as she realises all her little ruses are for nothing. We see her at her very worst, when she’s actually quite ill, but then we see her beginning to accept her diagnosis. We see her climb towards hope, towards a form of independence. She starts living in the moment and really enjoying her life again. It’s so uplifting. Right at the end, there’s a sense that, even with this disease, she can live a good life. 

An interesting element of this play is the involvement of people living with dementia, so do you have any professional experience working in this area?

I’ve done a lot of work in Liverpool in hospitals, homes and on stage in more than one piece where I’ve either played a woman with dementia or represented real-life people who have Alzheimer’s. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people with dementia about their lives. It can be heart-breaking, particularly when I asked a lady if she had children and she couldn’t remember. My word, that was sad. But it can also be joyful, like when you’re holding hands and singing with people.

What have you learnt through that process?

To work with people with dementia is to be open, and to be ready to understand how it is for them. It’s very, very different for each individual. Dementia affects people in very different ways.

Maggie May isn’t a musical, but music does play an important part in the story?

Music is wonderful. I’ve had entire wards singing ‘You’ll never walk alone’. To see people uplifted, singing and enjoying themselves when, before, you’ve seen them slumped, quiet and lost in their own world is quite wonderful. Music brings them right out. It’s an amazing thing. I’m not quite sure why it has the effect it does, it’s just there as a biological internal memory. It’s such an amazing tool.

In Maggie May, Gordon and Maggie have always sung together, it’s part of their relationship, and will continue to be part of their relationship, whatever happens.

Photo: Zoe Martin

You’ve had a lot of experience singing on stage so how do you feel about singing as Maggie?

I’m in my sixties and I’ve gone beyond embarrassment about anything! I’ve sung on the West End stage and, when I was auditioning, I’d get quite nervous about it and my throat would close up. But at a certain age that nervousness just fell away. Now, I will happily stand anywhere and sing anything. I’m glad I can embrace that. I was a very shy child, but as I’ve got older that’s been sloughed away.

You first came to national attention in Brookside, what was it like to be in such a groundbreaking TV show?

It was wonderful. It was like a family, I loved most of the people I was working with, but there’s always an auntie you don’t get on with. I was doing something at the Playhouse in Liverpool a few years ago and Kevin, who played my son in Brookside, brought his daughters to meet me. He played a character with dyslexia and he’s now the headmaster of a private girls’ school down south. I just kept looking at him and thinking ‘its Growler, my son’. 

Maggie May is going on a Dementia Friendly tour, how important is that to you?

I’m so proud to be part of it. I’ve worked in this area a lot, but this production is giving me so much more insight. To take Maggie and her story out into the world, for it to be seen, to be recognised, to be commented on is a wonderful opportunity. People will see her and think ‘I know her’. 

What do you hope people will take away from Maggie’s journey?

For carers, I hope they feel appreciated, that their story is being told and that people recognise how difficult it is to see your loved one disappear in front of your eyes. For people with dementia, I hope they will enjoy seeing their story being told with dignity – they still have worth and their lives are still there to be celebrated.

Maggie May is at Leeds Playhouse from May 7th to May 21st then touring. To book or 0113 2137700.