Angela’s Ashes the Musical, Fairfield Halls

“Is this a parody?” a friend asked. This musical adaptation of Frank McCourt’s tragicomic memoir is not a spoof, though you can understand why this wouldn’t initially seem musical worthy it has poverty, like Les Mis so…The musical has landed in the UK, two years after it opened in Belfast and launches its only UK show at the newly refurbished Fairfield Halls in Croydon after performances in Limerick, Dublin and Belfast.

Eoin Cannon returns to the role of Frank McCourt, playing him from adult looking back on his life to his childhood self. The use of adults to play children is a bold choice but thanks to charming and authentic performances it works for this play. Children who grow up in poverty have to grow up quickly. Cannon comes into his own as his character grows, he moves from a small child who idolises his father Malachy Snr (Marty Maguire), whose alcoholic demons haunt the family and whose Northern Irish roots mean he faces as much discrimination in Limerick, as they did in their original New York home. Maguire is excellent as Malachy, handsome, charming and a vivid storyteller who turns into someone else when he spends the family’s limited income on booze. There are some lovely scenes; Frank’s holy communion, Frank falling in love with Theresa (Brigid Shine), his conflict with his father and Mr Griffin (Mark O’Reagan) and his close relationship with his Uncle Pat (David O’Meara)

Jacinta White stars as Angela, a woman dispatched to America as she was too useless for Limerick. Like many Irish Catholic women of her generation her role is to breed and seemingly deal with devastation after devastation as her children die of fevers and other diseases that breed in poverty. Her development from a young mother to a woman who does what she can to survive is a wonderful performance, she also has great chemistry with Fiona Browne and Amanda Minihan, who play her neighbour Nora and her mother.

As a musical it is not as strong as its book. Inevitably there will be comparisons with Come from Away; very different stories but very similar musical influences. I think it is very telling that the programme doesn’t list the songs and whilst it isn’t all negative (The opening and closing song Angela’s Ashes is catchy) it can feel a bit cheesy, with a character saying a line that turns out the be the opening line of the next song. It is a shame Adam Howell is so focused on the Irish style music. McCourt is proud of his American roots and it is real shame we don’t hear some more jazzy numbers or anything that feels a bit different.

Paul Hurt’s book is very strong, he has excellent source material. As someone who saw the film adaptation but hasn’t read the book Hurt manages to get the key information out (there is so much death that I don’t blame him for cutting some out) and it is not only an authentic adaptation, the production feels authentic too. Thom Sutherland (known for Titanic) direction gives a sense of community, with the ensemble cast heavily involved and Francis O’Connors set and costumes work for the period and also moving from Brooklyn to Limerick. Sinead McKenzie’s lighting is quite dark, it feels like it is lit by street lighting only. It is brave choice that gives the production gravitas, this is a shiny feel good show. This is a show about life, love, death and laughter.

In terms of performances and book this is a great show but for anyone looking for an exceptional musical this sadly doesn’t meet that but there are great vocal performances from the cast and it is lovely adaptation of a well loved book.

Angela’s Ashes the Musical is on until 05 October 2019

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