Music and Lyrics: Adam Howell
Book: Paul Hurt
Director: Thom Southerland
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Croydon’s redevelopment continues, and this month the Modernist Fairfield Halls reopened its doors after a two-year renovation. It cost £42 million, but the results are impressive, and emphasise the features that many have likened to the Royal Festival Hall. Sleek windows fill the sun lounge with light while the foyer is vast and spacious. It houses a concert hall with acoustics that matches those of the Festival Hall, and also houses the Ashcroft Playhouse, named after Dame Peggy Ashcroft, where the floors are still glossy with new paint and which keeps its original flip-down seats. Angela’s Ashes is one of the first shows to grace this redesigned space, and the Irish musical is a handsome fit.
Frank McCourt’s memoir was a huge bestseller in 1996, its harrowing narrative of a Limerick childhood tempered by humour. But by the time the film came around in 1999, it seemed that we had wearied of this bleak portrayal of poverty in the 1930s and ‘40s. And there were those who clamed that great chunks of McCourt’s book were fiction rather than autobiography. After over 20 years since its publication, it does seem that the time is right for this musical adaptation which cleverly foregrounds the comedy rather than the tragedy.
Frankie and his family have returned to Limerick, after failing to survive in America and still grieving after the death of baby Margaret. Things don’t get much better for them in Ireland. Frankie’s father finds it impossible to get work as he is originally from the North, and soon Frankie’s mother is relying on charity and hand-outs to clothe and feed her ever expanding family. Any money that comes their way is immediately spent by the father down the pub, and soon the family is in danger of being evicted from their shabby two-room tenement.
Despite the fact that there seems to be a death in every scene, Paul Hurt’s book veers away from sentimentality, and Adam Howell’s songs, mostly based on the rhythms of Irish music, also keep the tears at bay. Only Sing River (all titles are approximate without a song-list), an elegy sung to the River Shannon, risks being over-emotional, but it is such a good song that its reprise in the second half is most welcome. Other songs such as Northern Man and Our Land are more up-tempo and are delivered with some busy but effective choreography. The title song is very catchy, indeed.
As Frank’s mother, Jacinta Whyte is eminently watchable and her voice easily fills the Ashcroft Theatre, but it’s a shame that her character is not allowed to join in the fun of some of the other numbers. As Frankie, Eoin Cannon is a very affable narrator and he manages to slip seamlessly between boy-Frankie and adult-Frank McCourt. They are supported by a talented cast with Fiona Browne shining as sickly neighbour Nora, and Conor Gormally doing well playing Frankie’s brother Malachy.
Francis O’Connor’s set of hanging windows and metal walkways conjure up a rainy Limerick, and under Sinead McKenna’s lights, a very dark Limerick too. Despite the gloom, it’s a credit to all involved, including the band hidden away somewhere, that this musical is never too dark. However, in its attempts to avoid any sentimentality Angela’s Ashes creates a distance between audience and actors that is never bridged. This story of hope never quite moves like it should.
Runs until 5 October 2019