Characters from Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes spring out of the pages and into life in the world premiere of Angela’s Ashes: The Musical. Much like its source material, the musical conveys the story of a “miserable Irish Catholic childhood” in an engaging way. At Belfast’s Grand Opera House, the performance showcases an effective set and superb musical numbers.
A movable bridge reminiscent of metal bed frames dominates the set (designed by Francis O’Connor). This set allows physical representation of power, as when Angela goes to the St. Vincent De Paul Society to ask for charity and is confronted by three men looming over her, visually reinforcing her vulnerability. Also exceptionally striking is the scene in which the McCourts move from America back to Ireland. The family stands on the bridge and looks forward to their new life, while the movement of the bridge in conjunction with bright stage lighting is suggestive of a ship, visually indicating the hope for a better home that drives the family’s move.
Adam Howell’s emotionally moving musical arrangements will follow you out of the theatre. “Sing River Shannon” and “Angela’s Ashes Are Calling” are outstandingly memorable, while Jacinta Whyte’s and Eoin Cannon’s musical performances enthrall the audience.
The McCourts’ desire to “make this our land” when returning to Limerick is particularly heartening. Despite the misery of Frank’s childhood, the musical does not vilify Limerick. Similarly, many of the less sympathetic characters get an open-minded treatment. Grandma, the Catholic Church, Frank’s schoolmasters, and Malachy McCourt Sr. are all represented as multifaceted people; they’re human.
Unfortunately, the shift between the adult narrator Frank and his child self is distractingly awkward. No clothing changes are used to signify the switch; Eoin Cannon imitates the physicality and facial expressions of a toddler when playing his younger self, which is disturbing more than convincing. The lack of any consistent markers for age makes it difficult to determine whether Frank and Malachy are toddlers, schoolchildren, or even teenagers. Emmet Byrne’s performance as the young Malachy McCourt is somewhat more credible, but scenes in which he stands significantly taller next to his mother only accentuate the fact that he is an adult playing a small child.
Although the childhood the musical describes is miserable—the alcoholic father, the family’s eviction, the multiple dead children—some of the book’s effect is lost. The tiny details of life in poverty, such as the flooded and wretched living conditions or Frank’s disreputable clothing, are erased. The songs from the musical create a similar emotional impact but are not a complete picture.
Angela’s Ashes: The Musical is a compelling retelling of Frank McCourt’s memoir, preserving much of the original humour and honesty of his book. As the second adaptation of Angela’s Ashes (preceded by the 1999 film), it just goes to show that “your story never ends, even after you’re gone”.