From raw emotion to religious devotion and from high comedy to the woeful lows of the McCourt family’s daily existence, this unlikely musical version of the acclaimed novel has it all.
Many doubters, and true fans of either the acclaimed book or film, would argue that such a transformation of the piece should not work, but – staying ever faithful to Frank McCourt’s memoir – this production, for me, worked much better than even the film version.
Of course, it is no theatrical kaleidoscope of colour, but it is much more upbeat and engaging than you could possibly imagine, with the perfect balance of comedy and pathos driving the story on from one tragedy to the next.
As a medium for telling stories and touching all of our emotions, good theatre is a powerful thing and in the expert hands of the dedicated team behind this project, Angela’s Ashes manages not only to bring this harrowing story to life and to touch our emotions, but also to control those emotions with its constantly changing patterns of laughter and loss.
As a fast-moving ensemble piece, one doesn’t get the time to dwell on the previous scene as it is quickly replaced by the mood of another scene, another story and another chapter in the miserable lives of this struggling family.
The reason shows like Les Miserables, West Side Story, Fiddler On The Roof, Blood Brothers and others have become so successful is that they are blessed with real life drama and Angela’s Ashes has this magical ingredient and deserves to go on to be a world-wide success.
Indeed, with its story of a very poor family headed by a determined matriarchal character, its mix of comedy and tragedy, its use of adults portraying children and its repetitive musical refrains, there are a lot of similarities to Blood Brothers and it is easy to see why it could be dubbed The ‘Irish’ Blood Brothers.
However, I think this would be unfair, as its themes of alcoholism, unemployment, infant mortality, relationship breakdown, multiple deaths and the additional historic and political setting of the piece makes it unique to its time and location without diluting the universality of its core story about the continuing efforts of the down-trodden, which would allow this production to travel successfully.
Not knowing what to expect from this show, I was blown away by every element of its production; from the amazingly talented cast perfectly capturing the necessary speech rhythms of the characters to the sheer emotional power of some of its songs.
I was glad to see that composer and lyricist, Adam Howell, did not opt for the clichéd ‘diddley-dee’ approach and ensured that the music – superbly directed by David Wray – was more ‘gently celtic’ than ‘staged Irish’, which would have spoiled the ambience of the piece.
Played out on a very clever dual-level set with surrounding balcony, that contained a well-used moving bridge structure and mobile staircase, this show also boasted effective use of footlights in an impressive yet stark lighting plot allowing its mainly white down and side lighting to convey the total desolation of the setting.
The ever-present Eoin Cannon’s clear and decisive narration and playing of Frank as both a boy and a man portrayed all the necessary elements of his complex character’s nature and was, without doubt, a stand-out performance.
Jacinta Whyte’s Angela was always passionately played with perfect vocals at all times, even when delivering some of her heart-wrenching and emotional songs, and, in caring and loving her children under such dire circumstances, she epitomised the typical Irish mammy and did the real Angela proud.
In front of his home crowd, Marty Maguire really rose to the occasion as the drunk and useless father, Malachy, and turned in a great performance that showed him to be a proud man underneath his outward short-comings.
Emmet Byrne’s Young Malachy was impressive in that he conveyed the hopelessness of the family’s situation and delivered some great comic one-liners in a much understated manner.
If Angela was the core of this story, then Elaine Hearty’s Nora provided its permanent comic input throughout, while Clare Barrett’s Grandma was the devoted Catholic mother who really cared for her family and Brigid Shine really did shine for her home crowd as the sympathetic Theresa.
There were no weak links here and others like Karen Ardiff (Mrs Finucane), Mark O’Regan (Mr Griffen), David O’Meara (Uncle Pat), Bryan Burroughs (Quasimodo) and Shane McDaid (Billy Heffernan) were all instrumental in the success of this production, which was so well directed by Thom Southerland with consistently good movement and positioning by Ste Clough.
It has been a long time since I have come across a new piece of theatre that has kept an audience so engaged and I believe that this show needs to go to the West End and Broadway as this stunning production deserves to be seen by everyone.
To those who are still doubters, I say ‘come along and enjoy the book again … only, this time, you don’t even have to read it!’
Angela’s Ashes – The Musical
Grand Opera House, Belfast
Tue 1-Sat 5 Aug, 2017