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. I don’t think she’s ever been anybody’s fool.
She 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’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. 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.
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 is scared she’ll show herself up in front of her son and his new girlfriend.
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.
When you first read the part, did you immediately see the potential for you in this role?
Reading the play for the first time was a lovely experience. It was such an easy read because it’s so well written. I loved Maggie from the start – I absolutely believed she existed. There’s nothing airy-fairy about her – she’s down-to-earth, she’s real, she lives amongst us. That makes her much easier to play. She’s a blessing of a part to be given.
You first came to national attention in Brookside – what was it like to be in such a successful 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’.
Even now, people see me and say ‘Brookside!’. When I was doing it, there were quite a few middle-aged men who felt the need to comment and have a go about my character. Women saw themselves represented by Chrissy and men liked to talk over her. She was independent and strong and not afraid to speak her mind. They claimed never to watch it. I’d say, ‘don’t worry, I’ve never seen you at work either’.
People ask you to sign all sorts, like a bit of greasy paper from a hotdog. On the other side of it, you get to meet some incredible people and have conversations that you would never have had without Brookside. I remember being on a couple of train journeys where people have really opened up to me, especially when we were doing the dyslexia storyline.
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.
Meeting up again at Leeds Playhouse with people like Mick and Lyn (who have helped playwright Frances Poet create Maggie May) is like seeing old friends. They have helped form this wonderful play with their lives and their stories. I’ve talked to Lyn, who cares for her husband Mick, about what it’s like for her. And to Mick, I was sort of like ‘I’m playing you, aren’t I?’, and he quickly came back with, ‘yes, and you’re playing it in drag!’. He’s still himself; still got that humour.
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. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
I found when I was doing other work using poetry and songs, if I started ‘And did those feet in ancient times…’ everyone would soon be singing Jerusalem, and if I started ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, suddenly someone would be reciting the whole poem. It’s those lower-tier memories, often from childhood, that stay with us the longest.
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.
You’ve had a lot of experience singing on stage – how do you feel about singing in-character 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.
I am the third of seven children, so you either made a noise or were quiet; and I was quiet. When I was 13 or 14, I found my voice through humour. That got me attention – maybe not always the right sort of attention at school where I was the class clown – but attention all the same. And then music came along. There was always music at home – my mum was the most fantastic singer, self-taught pianist and accordionist. I’ve got a natural ear for harmonies too, which helps. Apparently, it’s quite common for the shy child to push through the door and find their voice later in life.
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’.
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 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. We’re so quick to judge in this busy world.