A few years ago, Jacinta Whyte – by then into her 40s – took a taxi to the National Concert Hall, where she was due to do what she does best: perform musical hits from the West End.
After some small talk with the driver, there was a flicker of recognition. "My mam brought me to see you in Annie when I was a kid!" he exclaimed. Jacinta Whyte has achieved plenty since she played Annie in the Gaiety in 1978, aged 8 (and in London's West End, aged 11). Yet still, she is often remembered in Ireland as the child star who conquered the West End in the 1980s. Only recently has she started to see it
"I used to get a little annoyed by that," she admits. "I did think of it as baggage for a very long time. I'd do auditions and people would mention Annie and I'd think, 'yeah, I'm 20 now? I haven't got a dog anymore?' But now, I think of it all with affection."
Yet in 1980s Ireland, Whyte's move to London, when she beat out thousands of youngsters for the lead in a West End musical, was big news. Recently, a friend – one of her fellow Billie Barry stage school alumni – admitted that Whyte, a few years older than her, made her "more jealous than anyone in the world". And if you were a kid in the 1980s with stars in your eyes, Jacinta Whyte's career, replete as it was with Late Late Show appearances, pantos and variety shows on the Olympia and Gaiety stages, was a thing to behold.
Back then, much as now, the term “Billie Barry kid” was a loaded one: it was synonymous with shiny teeth and jazz hands and precocious show-offs. It’s a connotation that Whyte is all too aware of.
“I’ve met people since in the business who say ‘I was desperate to be a Billie Barry kid but my mother wouldn’t let me’,” recalls Whyte.
This is what I did when other kids played the tin whistle
“Any professional who came from England to work on pantos or shows would say that we were the most disciplined, well-behaved children they’d ever worked with. But no, we weren’t precocious. At the time, I was just having fun. There was no career strategy. This is what I did when other kids went swimming or did gymnastics or played the tin whistle.”
Yet what started as a bit of after-school fun with friends culminated in a lifelong career, kicking off with a three-month stint, aged 11, in London. Labour laws meant that no child could work on stage for more than three months in a row, so Whyte was one of five youngsters cast to play the part over the run.
"My dad would bring me over, deposit me in this big luxurious flat in Kensington with all the other kids from Annie and we'd get looked after by chaperones. That was great fun as you can imagine, and then my dad would fly in on weekends."
Asked to return the following year to play Annie in London though, the youngster had reservations. “I loved the show, but didn’t want to go back at all,” Whyte says. “London in 1978 was nothing like Dublin in 1978.”
The narrative of the typical child star grown up is boilerplate by now: being overwhelmed and dazzled by success at a preternaturally early age can sometimes set a person up for dysfunction, and a life chasing former glories.
“Many of the child stars weren’t looked after, if you look at the early days of Judy Garland and the like,” acknowledges Whyte. “As kids we always wanted to be Lena Zavaroni, and the poor girl died of anorexia. I was very lucky in that I was very grounded by my family. But growing up in Artane and going to St John of God School, you’d never lose the run of yourself, as you’d be marked down quickly enough.”
I got down to the last two for one of the girls in The Commitments, and I didn't get it and it just broke my heart
She may not have returned to Annie, but Whyte spent much of her teenage summers working in London: the lead in Anne Of Green Gables at 15, Sandy in Grease at 17. After a while, she had a straight acting career in her sights. Small Irish film roles followed (My Left Foot, The Lilac Bus), but with Whyte finding it difficult to shrug off her child-star past, the rejections started to become brutal.
"I couldn't even get an audition for Blood Brothers in the Olympia. I got down to the last two for one of the girls in The Commitments, and I didn't get it and it just broke my heart," she admits. "I got a small role as a consolation prize, and you can see me in one scene (the audition sequence in the Rabbitte house). That's when I was like, 'that's it. I'm going to London.' So I did Blood Brothers over there instead. I remember thinking, 'I can't stay here and do the Gaiety panto and a bit of cabaret… I really have to prove myself here.'"
Aged 20, and taking her £500 life savings from the TSB with her, Whyte moved to London full-time and decided to stick to what she did best: musical theatre. Year-long contracts in Blood Brothers and Miss Saigon followed, as did performances at the Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall.
You can't wake up next to your career
Whyte is still based in the UK, where she lives with her husband (conductor Stephen Hill) and son Callum (17), and has been working methodically since.
“You have to love what you do,” she says. “You’d have to be mad to do the hours that we work and to deal with the rejections otherwise. Only when I had Callum did I realise that my life hadn’t really been ‘normal’.”
London’s West End, for all its unabashed glamour, has a dark side, too: “You’d definitely see people going off the rails and all of that,” notes Whyte. “I saw women working with me who gave up everything for their career, and I remember thinking, “I don’t want that. I want a family.’ You can’t wake up next to your career.”
Earlier this year, producer Pat Moylan rang Whyte with an enticing offer: to play the titular role in the musical adaptation of Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes.
Moylan and McCourt’s widow, Ellen, have been actively trying to bring the Pulitzer Prize-winning book to the stage for some time. Ellen McCourt will likely attend the musical’s world premiere in Limerick, and so too, it is hoped, will Frank’s lone surviving brother, Malachy McCourt.
Still though, and amid the great gold rush of films/books being upstyled into musicals, surely Angela's Ashes is an unlikely candidate for a leap from page to stage?
"Well, Oliver! is Dickensian, and Cats originated with TS Eliot, and Miss Saigon is based on Madame Butterfly," says Whyte. "I think perhaps musicals were seen as 'below' theatre a long time ago, but not now. It helps that straight actors [such as Imelda Staunton in Gypsy] are coming in to do musical theatre now."
Certainly, the show's rehearsals – held in a space off Capel Street – point to a well-executed and slick production, similar in tone to Blood Brothers. In a scene where her character's twin boys succumb to illness in damp rainy Limerick, Whyte sings one particularly rousing number, River Shannon. She has form, clearly, with rousing numbers, and genuine tears start to fall from her eyes. That said, Angela's Ashes: The Musical is a neat weave of light and shade; of comedy and pathos.
She was downtrodden by circumstance, but by God, she got back up again
“I didn’t like the film [starring Emily Watson in the role of Angela],” admits Whyte. “But when Pat sent me the script I realised that it would be closer to the original book.
“My main thing will be trying to get [Angela] as true as I can, because this woman existed. She was not fictional: she was someone’s mother, wife and daughter. She was a hugely strong woman who did everything for her children. She was downtrodden by circumstance, but by God, she got back up again.”
Whyte observes that she’s at the “right time” in her life to play literature’s most stoic Irish mammy.
“This is such a big deal for me because I’m hoping that people will remember me more for Angela, not Annie,” she says. “Hopefully people will treat me more like the adult I am.”
Angela's Ashes is at the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, until 15th, and Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from July 18th-30th, and Grand Opera House, Belfast, from August 1st-5th. Tickets are from €20 and available from Ticketmaster. For more information see boardgaisenergytheatre.ie