Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Maggie’s Feg Run – a dark character with more red flags than a dangerous beach threatens an escape to the sun (final run at Grand Opera House finishes on 5 February)

Maggie Muff and her mate Big Sally Ann decide to hoof it off to Benidorm, investing someone else’s winnings in what should be a straightforward fun-filled feg run to boost their own purses, but the trip turns out to have more fallout than a Brexit protocol.

Caroline Curran seamlessly flicks in and out of 20 or so characters that populate the third of four stage plays by Leesa Harker based on her novels that parody the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Even before her mouth opens, the gestures and pursed lips identify who’s about to talk. A pair of giant flip flops and the stars in the sky are the only real props in Maggie’s Feg Run … at least until a stripper appears to do her party piece. Andrea Montgomery’s direction is a masterclass in filling the full width of the Grand Opera House stage with a one-handed show, with each location having its own consistent pattern of movement to enter.

The two-hour show is a narrative romp through a tawdry week of sun, sea and sex on the beach (both the drink and the sandy shenanigans). For all the talk of skin and sex, it’s just drawn in the minds of the audience who seem to thoroughly enjoy the tease and don’t mind the premature exit from every steamy situation into the next scene.

Maggie Muff regulars in the auditorium were wearing their branded t-shirts and hooped with laughter as old characters from previous shows were threaded into the tale. (Though given that this is the – apparently – final revival of the 2013 show, most had surely walked this sandy shore before?) About a tenth of the audience were men, with the scotch egg joke earning the deepest guffaws of the night.

But Maggie’s Feg Run is not all big breakfast buffets and drunken debauchery. The peril in the story arrives when Maggie sets her eyes on a posh character from her past. And that’s where the flat/busty/short/schlong-shaming tale feels like it crosses a line.

I’ve spent the best part of ten years not bothering to watch or review one of these Harker/Curran extravaganzas (or read the books they’re based on), so I’d be the first to admit that I don’t really fall into the intended audience. It doesn’t appeal. But I wouldn’t expect all theatre to appeal to everyone. Not every book in a library will be to my taste.

Sitting in the stalls of Frank Matcham’s restored emporium of entertainment, I may have overthought the on-stage spectacle. But ever since sitting beside and chatting to Harker at an opening night for someone else’s production in another theatre, I’ve promised myself I’d be open to attend a performance.

Tuesday was a day of two halves for me. I spent the afternoon in a school facilitating a session with a group of sixth formers whose chosen topic for a pretend NI Assembly piece of legislation was – their choice – the reform of the Relationships and Sexuality Education curriculum to make it more relevant, more consistent, and better taught. It’s not a formal initiative; they could have as easily chosen – and nearly did – to ban toll roads in Northern Ireland (spoiler alert: we don’t yet have any to ban).

Three hours later, sitting in the Grand Opera House and hearing how Maggie dealt with an unwanted close shave – “violated by the razor” to use the fictional character’s words – I thought back to the kids explaining the need to properly teach about consent. They would have had a lot to say about Maggie’s situation.

And what about the character’s inability to stop herself being drawn back into the arms of a man – “a no good woman-beatin’ bastard” to quote – who has more red flags that a dangerous beach?

Ten days ago I booked a representative from Women’s Aid NI to participate in a radio programme, and she reminded the audience that the majority of women murdered in Ireland are attacked by intimate partners, either current or previous.

“I have changed” pleaded Maggie’s ex. Were his promises of being self-aware and having turned over a new leaf to be believed? Does any violent partner deserve a second change from their victim? Maggie’s lack of will power was potentially threatening her life. And while some of the audience sat nervously quiet, others still tittered out loud as if Maggie was onto something good as she diced with another bout of gender-based violence.

Maggie’s hard-learned life lessons have certainly come at a considerable cost. Though I’m not convinced all of Maggie’s fans in last night’s audience had stopped to appreciate that. (Some didn’t even stop talking throughout most of the performance.)

I half-expected leaflets for Women’s Aid with their regional phone numbers, web chat service (9am-5pm), and the instruction to call 999 in an emergency to be handed out to people as they left the theatre.

Watching Maggie’s Feg Run on the same day Doug Beattie and his social media history were being trailed through the mud was also a reminder that playwrights and directors – and comedians – can get away with a lot more on stage than people can in real life. (If a politician cracked half the remarks that came out of the mouths of Maggie or Sally-Ann, they’d be toast before you could say “statement to the house”.)

There’s an element of escapism for sure. Theatre and comedy are also full of suspending reality and exploring what might happen in an unusual and artificial situation. No one thinks Maggie’s story is real? But do they fantasise that it was?

Maybe dissertations and a thesis or two will be written about Harkin’s rollocking fantasy series? Maybe it is teaching empowerment through the example of a fictional woman taking huge risks and making big mistakes? Maybe Maggie is a feminist icon who is sharing her experiences, warts and all, to educate and warn others?

Would I even begin to deconstruct the comings and goings in a Shakespeare piece that was being staged? Possibly not, but then the bard’s audience are unlikely to be living vicariously through the lives of the characters in the play, whereas Maggie Muff’s fans really revel in her antics.

The content is definitely challenging, the theatre is very well constructed, and it may even make you think. And if I ever get to sit beside Leesa Harker again, we’ll definitely have something to talk about!

Maggie’s Feg Run continues at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 5 February

Photo credit: Elaine Hill

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