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Maggie May at Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch: Lead actors discuss the challenge of portraying dementia on stage

PUBLISHED: 15:00 09 March 2020 | UPDATED: 16:15 09 March 2020

John McArdle (Gordon) and Eithne Browne (Maggie) at the Maggie May meet and greet at Leeds Playhouse. Picture: Tracey Welch

John McArdle (Gordon) and Eithne Browne (Maggie) at the Maggie May meet and greet at Leeds Playhouse. Picture: Tracey Welch

Tracey Welch

Maggie May is a heartwarming play about dementia. Lead actors Eithne Browne and John McArdle discuss their roles and the play’s important message.

Actors Shireen Farkhoy, Maxine Finch, John McArdle, Eithne Browne and Mark Holgate at the Maggie May meet and greet. Picture: Tracey WelchActors Shireen Farkhoy, Maxine Finch, John McArdle, Eithne Browne and Mark Holgate at the Maggie May meet and greet. Picture: Tracey Welch

Maggie and Gordon first met in 1971 dancing to the sound of Rod Stewart. Now in their sixties, and still very much in love, they've been finishing each other's songs all their marriage.

But now Maggie finds herself "a little foggy" and some days the songs are all she can remember.

When her son and his new girlfriend come to dinner one evening, her best friend starts asking questions and the family begin to balance the challenges that dementia brings to daily life.

"We're dealing with this diagnosis, how it impacts their family and their relationship with their son," said Eithne who plays Maggie.

Throughout all the development stages of the play, Leeds Playhouse has been working with people living with dementia and their carers to keep it "honest" and "respectful".

"We got to know them, writing their poetry - there's not one form of dementia, it shows up in lots of different ways," she explained.

The cast became close to the friends they were trying to emulate: "I spoke to Nick [a sufferer] in Leeds, I said 'I want to get it right because I'm playing you', and he said 'well you'd have to do in drag then!'"

Although the play does portray the harsh realities, it's a tale of learning to live happily with dementia.

"It's not all doom and gloom, it's actually very funny and there's lots of singing and dancing, there's so much joy and warmth along with the sorrow.

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"Now we know more about it, and how it works differently in people, my grandmother had it and we'd find it amusing when you find the margarine in the birdcage!"

Although the production is a positive and cheerful take on life with dementia, "we're not shirking the big issues," said John. "We're accepting it for what it is. More and more people are living longer, more people are being affected by this, we need to address it."

Maggie May experiences "the fog" being a lot a thicker and gloomier some days and lighter on others and she deals with the fear of losing a sense of who you are.

"It is really hard work but because it's such a positive well written piece of work. Maggie May is very strong lead character, as she has to tell her only son and doesn't want him to worry - how do you react to find out that your mum has Alzheimer's in your early thirties?" explained John.

Eithne added: "Hopefully it's a piece of entertainment as well as something serious. People will find her amusing, sad - a whole rollercoaster of emotions - but they'll come away a bit better."

Eithne had played the part for two years before the upcoming show in Hornchurch, but the production has evolved with time.

She started acting at 28, a passion she discovered a little later life, after a friend commented her having a "natural ear for harmonies".

Acting in Blood Brothers as her first production, she went from Liverpool to the West End and took over from Barbara Dixon, the previous lead.

Among those giving the show their blessing was author Wendy Mitchell, who was diagnosed aged 58, wrote a blog and then a book about her experience, which detailed ways to come to terms with the condition, as well as practical ways to make your house dementia-friendly.

"She is one of the prime movers and shakers of someone living with dementia and she's been part of this discussion - she came to see us do a run-through of the play and having her blessing has been extraordinary," said Eithne.

Maggie May will be at Queen's Theatre, Billet Lane, Hornchurch from March 13 to March 28. Find tickets here,

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