Angela’s Ashes – The Musical – Bord Gais Energy Theatre – Review by Lisa Jewell
Photos by Patrick Redmond
Angela’s Ashes – The Musical runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, until 30 July with performances at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from 1 – 5 August
The idea of Angela’s Ashes being made into a musical seems like a rather strange one and also a bit of gamble. You could easily imagine some Channel 4 sitcom where the characters scratch their heads trying to come up with a really out there idea for a West End musical and land on the very serious Pulitzer prize winning memoir as their improbable target.
And so for the first 15 minutes of Angela’s Ashes – The Musical, I couldn’t help but wonder, is this actually going to work? How can characters break out into song when they’re going through a hard existence in the Limerick slums in the 1930s and 1940s? How can there be levity when a family is being torn apart from alcoholism, unemployment and infant mortality?
It really shouldn’t work. We’re all so used to the idea of the book being a grim and often depressing depiction of an Irish childhood – or as we all know, ‘a miserable Irish Catholic childhood’. In some ways, Angela’s Ashes’ success as a book and a film led it to becoming almost a pastiche.
And that perhaps is why the musical works – because as an audience, we’re aware of the pastiche and go along with it to a certain extent. And so when Eoin Cannon – as Frank McCourt – gives that line about the ‘miserable Irish Catholic childhood’, we already know the reference and there’s a little bit of a wink and a nod when he says it too.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Angela’s Ashes, it depicts the McCourt family (father is Malachy from Northern Ireland and mother is Angela from Limerick city and they have a brood of children including the eldest Frank and second eldest Malachy Jr) who leave New York to return to Ireland. As is pointed out in the musical, most people are emigrating the other direction in search of a better life. The family’s fortune and fate is definitely on the skids after their move to Limerick.
The set design is innovative – wrought iron railings form a three sided balcony that is artfully moved back and forth to give depth to the set, along with a staircase, furniture and doorway that depict the different locations. This brings a huge sense of choreography to the musical and keeps a pace going through it. The only fault possibly with the set design is that it doesn’t really give a sense of just how grim the living conditions were in the Limerick tenements (in a way that the film and the book did) but it’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things.
The songs are well written and performed in perfect harmony – I wasn’t too sure about a couple of them but was proved entirely wrong as I kept humming the refrain from the main song, ‘Angela’s Ashes Are Calling’ a couple of days after the performance. Catchy songs are the mark of a good musical so a huge tick in that box.
The acting and singing from the cast are of a really high standard – deserving of the standing ovation given the night that I attended. The ensemble cast singing together gave a really nice Greek chorus effect – particularly the part with the chairs thumping up and down in time to the music and the section in the pub where Frank goes for his first pint with Uncle Pat. It’s an interesting decision to have two adult actors depicting Frank and Malachy from being youngsters right through to early adulthood and it works really well.
One striking thing about the musical is that it plays it for laughs with quite bawdy and strong language – with ‘arse’ coming up fairly often for instance. It went down a treat with the audience but it will be interesting to see how it plays with a non Irish audience, as the musical is tipped for the international circuit. Humour also comes from a playfulness with language – as seen in the threatening letters that Frank writes for moneylender Mrs Finucane, which produced huge laughs from the audience.
The musical manages to balance the light and shade well – with both comedic and dramatic moments. Afterwards, I remembered the humour and the songs a lot more than those moments of pathos – they didn’t stay with me as pulling at the heart strings all that much.
But overall, and rather to my surprise, Angela’s Ashes worked as a musical. It would be interesting to see what someone who has no knowledge of the book or film would think of it as a fresh new story. But even with that prior knowledge, it turns out to be an entertaining theatre experience. The gamble obviously paid off.
Producer: Pat Moylan
Director: Thom Sutherland
Music & Lyrics: Adam Howell
Book: Paul Hurt
Based on the Memoir by Frank McCourt
Cast: Jacinta Whyte, Eoin Cannon, Karen Ardiff, Clare Barrett, Bryan Burroughs, Emmet Byrne, Elaine Hearty, Marty Maguire, Shane McDaid, David O’Meara, Mark O’Regan, Brigid Shine