We speak to Eithne Browne, who plays the eponymous Maggie in Maggie May about her character, her background and what it means to take part in the UK’s first national dementia friendly tour.
Tell us a little bit about your character.
Maggie is a wonderful character to play. 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. 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. Can you tell that I absolutely love playing her?
What is Maggie May about?
In the end, Maggie May is about hope. It’s about looking forward. We follow Maggie on a very particular journey. 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. 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.
How important is it that you and John McArdle (who plays Maggie’s husband Gordon) already had a connection from your time in Brookside?
It’s so important. John and I feel so lucky. When each of us realised who we were going to be working with, we immediately texted each other and said ‘thank god it’s you’. I know his wife and he knows my family. We’ve obviously got the Brookside connection but we didn’t actually work together a lot in those days – our on-screen families didn’t really interplay. But we’ve got a friendship; a lovely connection. John and I know and trust each other. There are no barriers there in terms of ‘who are you, what are you like, what are you thinking?’ We just know.
An interesting extra element of this play is the involvement of people living with dementia. How have you found working with them as part of the preparation and rehearsal process?
What a privilege! I’ve absolutely loved it.
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.
Maggie May isn’t a musical, but music does play an important part in the story. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
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.
Maggie May is going on a completely Dementia Friendly tour – how important is that to you?
I’m so proud to be part of it. 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’.
I say: come one, come all. It’s important that people see themselves reflected up on stage and feel like they know you. There’s no barrier between the actors and the audience – we are all together in this. I will be so happy to go out and speak to people in the audience afterwards, to find out about their lives and their experiences.
What do you hope people will people take away from the play?
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. For people coming to see the play for no other reason than they want to see a good play, I hope they’ll find it educational, but not in a preachy way, and that they’ll have more patience with people in future.
Maggie May runs 13-28 March at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch