Paul T Davies reviews Angela’s Ashes, a new musical by Adam Howells based on Frank McCourt’s memoir now playing at Fairfield Halls in Croydon.
Angela’s Ashes The Musical.
Croydon Fairfield Halls.
26 September 2019
Based on Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir about his poverty struck childhood in Ireland in the 1930s, the musical version has taken some time to make its professional UK debut. The show has, unsurprisingly, taken Ireland by storm, and it’s easy to see why. McCourt was a wonderful commentator on his childhood, and the book was among the first of a new genre that was branded “misery memoirs”. True, how the family survived such poverty, abandoned by a drunken father, is a hard watch sometimes, but it also celebrates survival and the remarkable tenacity of his mother, Angela. This is a beautiful, moving, powerful production, with music and lyrics by Adam Howells embracing the audience with melody and love. Tough as the childhood was, McCourt also tempered it with mischievous humour, and the beauty of Paul Hurt’s book is that it not only shares the tears in Frank’s eye but also leaves in the twinkle.
It’s a tribute to Howell and Hurt that the material does not resort to stereotypical “Oirishness”, there’s no drunken jig in a pub, and the ghost of Riverdance is firmly kept at bay. And the ensemble is terrific, this is a beautifully sung show, performed from the heart and radiating with love. As Angela, Jacinta Whyte is mesmerising, keeping emotions in just enough check so melodrama is avoided, and she is devastating in stillness and song. The ballad River Shannon, sung as Angela loses a child to illness, is heartbreaking and so is her farewell to her son, heartbreaking yet hopeful. As Frank, Eoin Cannon is a warm narrator, slipping with ease into the childhood representations of Frank, his acting and singing among the best I’ve seen this year. Conor Gormally is brilliant as Malachy Jnr., charting his progress from child to young man convincingly, and Marty Maguire gives a superb performance as the alcoholic father Malachy, his performance rounded enough to even elicit some sympathy for the old bastard. The musical swarms with excellent characters, among them Amanda Minihan’s tough as old boots Grandma, Norma Sheahan’s heartless rent collector Mrs Finucane, and Brigid Shine’s ethereal yet doomed love interest Theresa Carmody.
Thom Sutherland’s direction and Francis O’Connor’s excellent set and costume design keep things simple yet highly effective, the show proceeds at a fair lick. In places, perhaps one more humorous anecdote and number would have balanced the tragedy out a bit in the first half, but this show is far less glum than Les Miserable! As Frank saves his money to leave Ireland and make his life in America, it reaches a climax that offers hope and celebrates familial love and survival. West End producers need to take note, this show needs an immediate transfer, it is superior to much mediocre fare currently on London’s stages- I’m still singing the theme song in my head the morning after, something other big West End shows have failed to do. And America, especially cities of Irish/American citizens with love this show! It deserves the biggest platform and audience possible, but for now, I urge you to get to Croydon. You won’t regret seeing this show that wears its heart on its sleeve with pride and song. I have only seen two musicals this year when the audience have jumped to their feet within seconds of the last chord finishing. One was Come From Away, the other is Angela’s Ashes. Don’t miss it.
Until 5 October 2019