“The decision was to bypass the rain-sodden, awfulness of Alan Parker’s film version, and to mine the comedy gold from McCourt’s original writing.”
In 2000 I attended the opening night, in the Point Depot (now the 3Arena) of a much-anticipated show called The Ha’Penny Bridge. Hyped to the max as the largest Irish musical ever staged, it had millions behind it, and it’s creator/producer/writer Alastair McGuckian’s eyes were firmly on Broadway, where Riverdance had been pulling the big bucks a good five years by then. At half time, I remember standing at the bar and behind me, talking to a friend was the late broadcaster, Gerry Ryan. “In a word,” he summed the proceedings up: “Brutal”.
McGuckian most likely lost his shirt staging his brutal epic Irish musical, which never saw the light of day again after its Dublin run, as did Riverdance creators, Moya Doherty and John McColgan in 2007 when they opened on Broadway with The Pirate Queen, a musical based on the life and times of the 16th Century Irish chieftan, Grace O’Malley. The writing team behind the epic musical genre defining Les Miserables, Alain Boubill and Claude-Michel Shonberg were on board for songs and story, so the expectations were high, but crtics panned it and The Pirate Queen closed just two months after opening on the Great White Way.
The lesson to be learned is that nothing in musical land is a sure bet, even with the best talent on board, and in such precarious circumstances, if you’re going to stage an epic musical, you better have a financial back-up plan.
And so we come to Angela’s Ashes, the latest epic Irish musical to tread the boards, this time at Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. Based on Frank McCourt’s phenomenally bestselling memoir about his childhood in miserable, 1950s Catholic Limerick, the musical that might spring to mind when anticipating it is the aforementioned Les Mis. That Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel, with it’s multiple tragic deaths and miserable poverty, could become a hit show, was something no musical critic could have anticipated back in 1985, when it first opened in London (it’s run continuously there since).
McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is a kind of Irish Les Miserables, without the politics and revolution. Set amid grinding poverty it tells the story of a marriage that goes to pieces as McCourt’s father drinks every penny away and his mother struggles, ever debasing herself further so her children can survive. It has more deaths than Les Mis (I counted five last night), relentless misery and little in the way of redemption, so it was always going to be a struggle to make Angela’s Ashes The Musical an entertaining night out for all the family.
The decision of its producers was to bypass the rain-sodden, awfulness of Alan Parker’s film version, and to mine the comedy gold from McCourt’s original writing, thereby always underpinning the grinding poverty with a song and a laugh. The first musical that comes to mind when you realise this is Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, a much less epic, but utterly enjoyable show about a penniless, deserted woman trying to bring her children up against terrible and tragic odds. In fact Angela’s Ashes shares more in concept and execution with Blood Brothers than it does with Les Miserables – it’s got one fixed set that’s ingeniously used to create all sorts of scenarios, it’s a tale of a struggling mother, roughened by disappointment in a shiftless man, fighting for her children. And it’s got adults playing those children.
The main adult is Eoin Cannon, who veers from playing Frank, the narrator of his tale, and Frankie, the little boy who comes of age as the romance of his relationship with his alcoholic father morphs into disappointment and finally disillusionment. At least that’s what happened to Frankie in the book. In the show, there’s so much going on, it’s hard to settle on the funny, sad dynamic of the relationship between Frankie and his father that made McCourt’s memoir so affecting. Having said that, Cannon holds the show together confidently, and moves from child to teenager to man and back again with restraint, never hamming it up but emodying the emtional state of each stage. He’s always likeable, and although it might be a bit heavy on the narration at points, he handles it deftly.
Otherwise, this is a musical that rarely stops moving from the moment it opens. The brown coloured set is on castors, so it’s constantly on the go, while the entire cast and chorus are never quite far away, always moving about in the background or appearing in the McCourt house to add their voices to the proceedings. The pace is so unrelenting, that babies die, and grandmothers die, and Frank’s first love dies, and it all seems to pass in a haze of song and movement, without time for us to take in the tragedy.
Frankie’s mother, Angela, is played by Jacinta Whyte, who originated the role of Annie on the West End back when Jesus was a child. She’s had the training and she knows how to belt a musical tune out, and that she does again, and again, throughout this show. And herein lies the biggest problem for me. There’s such an empahsis on making this musical ‘big’ in every sense of the word, it’s often hard to emotionally connect.
On the rare occasion it does slow down, as in a scene when Frankie’s father tells his boys a story while Angela looks on, or when Frankie drinks his first pint with his uncle, or in the closing moments, when the grown-up Frank hugs his brother goodbye before leaving for America, you can see the a real spark of something great in this show. But then the set starts moving, the cast appear from all sides, and we’re off at the races again.
The ultimate key to a hit show is a hit song, a ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’, or a ‘I Dreamed A Dream’. Adam Howell’s songs and lyrics here are servicable, and every so often there’s a hint of a real spark, but ultimately they’re forgettable. Moments and songs, which could have been brilliant are lost, such as in the scene where Frankie goes to Irish dancing class. Clichéd as it might have been, this was an excellent place to show off a bit of Irish dancing, tap-shoes and all, but it’s a miasma of unparticular movement with a song that I can’t now remember for the life of me.
Having said all this, Hurt’s book mines colloquial comedy gold from McCourt’s writing and the audience laughed out loud for the most part; and you might hum the final tune as you leave the theatre (I did, but I’ve forgotten it now). It’s a pity then that much of the pathos Angela’s Ashes desperately needs gets lost in constant movement and over-singing. Whyte has a beautiful voice, and when on the rare occasion she’s allowed to use its more suble tones, it’s makes for spine-tingling stuff.
Special mention must also go to Clare Barrett as Frankie’s Grandma and Karen Ardiff as the landlady, Mrs Finucane, both formidably funny in their roles.
Angela’s Ashes obviously wants to go the way of Broadway, but if it’s to get there without anyone losing their shirts, a leaf might be taken out of the most successful modern Irish musical of them all, Once. It’s in its subtle, intimate moments that Once revels and succeeds, and it proves a showstopper can be as simple as ‘Falling Slowly’, without any belting and key changes at the obvious moments.
Angela’s Ashes runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until July 30, tickets here.
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