Angela’s Ashes: The Musical – Are we ready to look back on hard times and smile?

The new musical jabs at some nerves – its vision of homelessness and hunger are not distant threats

Eoin Cannon as Frank, Jacinta Whyte as Angela, Marty Maguire as Malachy and Bryan Burroughs in Angela’s Ashes. Photograph: Patrick Redmond

Eoin Cannon as Frank, Jacinta Whyte as Angela, Marty Maguire as Malachy and Bryan Burroughs in Angela’s Ashes. Photograph: Patrick Redmond

 

Angela’s Ashes: The Musical
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
****

The first thing to say about Angela’s Ashes: The Musical is that it sounds so much better than a musical version of Angela’s Ashes might sound.

Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir was a dry reminiscence about his impoverished childhood in 1930s Limerick, the son of a striving mother and an alcoholic father, who lost family and loved ones to illness, and struggled for selfhood under the thumb of the pious. Pat Moylan’s production just add songs.

If the formula for comedy is tragedy plus time, musicals can make similar calculations. Les Misérables made sound and spectacle from dire circumstances before, and the comparison is even more fruitful. That blockbuster musical bridged an era of recession with loadsa money neoliberalism: Recovery The Musical.

To see penury again presented as commercial product brings a curiously similar sensation. Has Ireland really turned a corner? If anything, the new musical by Adam Howell, with book by Paul Hurt, jabs at some nerves. Its vision of homelessness and hunger are not distant threats. Eoin Cannon, as our amiable narrator Frank, doesn’t seem less contrary today to be an American immigrant into Ireland when “anyone with any sense was heading the opposite way”.

The musical – directed by Thom Southerland, with an attractively manoeuvrable set by Francis O’Connor – seems to take lessons from both prosperity and austerity. Its biggest asset is a large ensemble, mostly onstage throughout, who swiftly summon up scenes with setpieces and elbow grease (and fluid movement by Ste Clough). There’s a similar restless energy in Howell’s compositions, rooted in trad but often flitting between genres, which make good use of massed harmonies and, as Angela, Jacinta Whyte’s formidable West End chops and capacity to belt.

The rhythm is let down, a little, by the retrospective nature of a memoir: you miss the structure and surge of a musical narrative. It is enlivened by nimble directorial touches – a solemnly unravelled blanket to suggest the death of a child, or a zealously served First Holy Communion more brutal than an execution – and winning performances from Clare Barrett’s fretting Grandma, Brigid Shine’s consumptive temptress, Theresa, and Bryan Burroughs, who is discovered in any number of amusing costumes and physical postures.

The production does not shy from the burden of shame, whether instilled by debt or religious scruples, making sardonic humour seem like a defence mechanism: “Bless me father,” says Francis at one point, “it has been a minute since my last confession.”

But this has always been a rags-to-riches story: the assurance of the book was that McCourt wrote it from a safe, prosperous distance. The assurance of the musical is similar. Like the triumphant rising of Sinead McKenna’s rear wall lights, it radiates confidence; a large-scale, light-footed entertainment that decides we are ready to look back on hard times and smile. Let’s hope they’re right.

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