We speak to John McArdle, who plays Gordon in Maggie May, about his character, his background and what it means to take part in the UK’s first national dementia friendly tour.
Tell us a bit about Gordon, the character you play in Maggie May.
Gordon isn’t retired yet. He’s in his mid-60s. He’s a landscape gardener, running a little company with his son, Michael – cutting hedges and all that sort of stuff. He’s a practical, hands-on sort of guy who always kept himself in shape. Then he has a stroke. That knocks the stuffing out of him – even his dignity feels a bit dented.
Because he’s been married for such a long time to Maggie, she helps him recover quite quickly. But, as he starts to feel better, he notices that his wife is having problems and he thinks he should start to reciprocate the help. He’s basically a nice guy; a simple, ordinary fella. He has a great sense of humour too.
The relationship between Gordon and Maggie is key to the play. How does he help her to cope with her diagnosis?
If you’ve got a partner – a carer – who can help you through it, someone who understands you, who doesn’t patronise you, who tries to help you feel positive about things, it’s going to be a heck of a lot easier. His way of dealing with things, when he sees her going down, is to sing all the songs he knows she likes, even though he’s not the greatest singer. They sing while doing the dishes and dance round the kitchen.
You and Eithne (Browne, playing Maggie) have a long history together. You’re from the same neck of the woods, and you both got your big break on Brookside. Does that help with your on-stage relationship?
It helps if you’re working with someone you get on with. We’ve known each for a long time – 30 years on and off because of the Liverpool scene. Liverpool actors always end up meeting even if they’re not working together. Eithne was in Brookside but I don’t think I had one scene with her. I think this is the first play we’ve done together too. We’ve seen each other’s plays, but this is the first time we’re actually on stage together.
People living with dementia and their families have shared their stories with Maggie May playwright Frances Poet. What does their contribution bring to the table?
It was interesting to hear people’s comments after the read-through. They don’t pull any punches – they’re straight in there. Their input has been invaluable from day one. And seeing Mick (who has been involved in the play since its conception) laughing his head off – really enjoying the humour of the play – was just great. There are some great laugh-out-loud moments in the show and to see Mick enjoying himself was wonderful.
This is the UK’s first major Dementia Friendly tour. How does that make you feel?
I’m very proud to be involved. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know what Dementia Friendly meant. Does it mean people might walk out in the middle of the show or shout out? I’ve experienced that before when people with disabilities have come to shows, so I knew that would not bother me.
I hope the play helps. I hope we’re saying ‘welcome’ and giving a positive message to people living with dementia and the people who care for them. And I hope we attract a very wide audience, because it’s for everybody.
Maggie May runs 13-28 March at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch