Forget misery lit and grinding poverty - Angela's Ashes The Musical is a surprisingly funny night out which brings Frank McCourt’s celebrated novel to life in music and song. Alan Corr saw the show in McCourt’s hometown of Limerick and met the cast.
"People have got Angela’s Ashes all wrong," says Jacinta Whyte, the Dublin stage veteran who plays the titular mammy in a new production of Angela’s Ashes: The Musical.
Frank McCourt’s best-selling 1996 book - an everyday tale of Infant death, alcoholism, constant hunger, and fleas, lots of fleas - is essentially the Irish Les Misérables. it sold ten million copies, has been translated into 126 languages, won a Pulitzer Prize, and launched a whole new industry of hard-bitten and hard done by memoirs but Whyte says there’s a lot more to this story of a child growing up in the lanes of Limerick in the 1930s and 1940s.
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"I loved the book when it came but when I saw the film I thought that’s so dark," she says, sitting front of house in Limerick’s Lime Tree Theatre where the musical has just enjoyed a successful run, two years after debuting in the venue in 2017.
"But the book has the Irish lilt and Frank McCourt’s humour so this musical is very much in keeping with his original writing. It’s as funny as it is sad. It’s very Irish - if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry." she adds.
The book’s reputation was, indeed, probably sealed by Alan Parker’s almost comically glum 1999 film adaptation in which the veteran director was clearly so worried about capturing the full horror of the poverty-stricken Limerick of the 1930s that he is said to have placed a special filter over his lens to make the place seen darker. It also seems doubtful if there were any rain machines left for hire in Ireland or UK for the duration of the shoot.
"This was a big challenge. I'm settled into it now but if you’d met me a few days ago and probably would’ve been having a panic attack sitting here at the moment. It has to all look serene but inside I’m screaming." - Norman Sheahan
Cork actress Norma Sheahan, who plays villainous landlady Mrs Finucane in Angela’s Ashes The Musical, is a tad more pithy and mischievous than her co-star: "What next?" she’s asks with a grin and perhaps a touch of Mel Brooks. "Someone said to me, `Oh my god! Angela’s Ashes? Is there going to be a musical about The Holocaust now?’"
The vivacious Whyte, who has been a star of stage and screen since her early turn as the lead in Annie as a child actor nearly forty years ago, spends most of the new production in a worn out pinny, chain smoking, while trying to herd her children and remonstrating with her errant husband, Malachy.
In fact, this musical production of McCourt’s novel has all the mischief and inventive yarn-spinning of a short story by another famous literary Frank - Frank O’Connor, only with songs. In fact, such is the mix of black humour and real tragedy on show here that it may even echo Brendan Behan’s famous line about Limerick as "the city of piety and shite."
Forget about your heartstrings being pulled - Angela's Ashes The Musical is more likely to prang your funny bone.
"In the book and the musical we give memories and they're fuzzy - they’re not showing you a reality, what we're doing is giving you a palette to colour in the edges yourself." - Eoin Cannon
With her portrayal of Mrs Finucane, Sheahan gives Limerick its very own wicked witch of the west as she issues threats with a barely contained relish until - in a wonderfully stagy scene - she drops dead at her counting table and Frank, with an eye on divine justice, swipes her remaining cash and then chucks her ledgers into the Shannon.
In fact, Sheahan, whose extensive CV includes roles on Bridget & Eamonn, Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, and A Date For Mad Mary, is in danger of stealing the show as Mrs Frances Philomena Finola Finucane. "Or f***ing Finucane as we call her."
For Sheahan, the show was actually a baptism of fire. "This was a big challenge. I’m settled into it now but if you’d met me a few days ago and probably would’ve been having a panic attack sitting here. It has to all look serene but inside I’m screaming."
The richly-voiced Eoin Cannon plays Frank himself, from his childhood as the occasionally recalcitrant but bright school boy to the resourceful teenage who plots and saves to earn his dream ticket back to the promised land of the USA.
Cannon, who has acted in Fair City, and in the PBS special The Bloody Irish in the US, as well as playing the lead role in Michael Collins a Musical Drama, agrees that there were raised eyebrows when the idea of turning McCourt’s memoir of a "miserable Irish Catholic childhood" in Limerick into a musical was first announced.
"In the book and the musical we give memories and they’re fuzzy - they’re not showing you a reality," he says. "They’re showing you a memory and along with what I say on stage and the music, what we’re doing is giving you a palette to colour in the edges yourself."
Earlier in the day, I took the Frank McCourt walking tour of the city, which is run by a local gentleman by the name of Noel Curtin. It’s a leisurely stroll, starting on the bustle of O’Connell Street, and then winding its way through beautiful Georgian terraces and ordered Victorian enclaves to visit many of the key locations where the gallows humour and despair of the book was first forged on Barrack Hill, Roden Lane, and Windmill Street.
Forget about your heartstrings being pulled - it's your funny bone that is more likely to be pranged.
"Everything is so close by, you forget," says Whyte. "This blooming novel that’s had worldwide accolades is about this tiny little place and being here in Limerick does bring it to life for you. Especially going to Frank's old school room."
A backstage tour before the show reveals a few of the secrets of the small but tightly-drilled production. The props department is as Spartan as the McCourt household of the 1930s and the lovingly curated costumes have been sourced in vintage shops or borrowed from the Abbey’s more extensive collection. The band, meanwhile, are tucked away backstage in a small room, taking their cues remotely from the actors out front on stage.
That night, there is a full house at the Lime Tree for the rumbustious, two-hour production, which is directed by Thom Southerland, who I’m told is allergic to sentiment. Suitably sparse but well-staged, the show uses a central prop of a stairway and balcony that serves as everything from the prow of an ocean liner to the McCourt’s tiny house.
It is very much an ensemble piece with numerous members of the cast on stage throughout. As Sheahan says, "We’re all sweating like the river Shannon."
And then there are the songs and music. "It just keeps flowing, like a Les Misérables," says Whyte. "It’s not your typical, `and now we’re going to say a few lines and now we’re all going to sing a song!!’"
"There was poverty in Limerick but there was poverty in Dublin, In Cork, it was in London . . . it's universal but the story of Angela is that she keeps getting slapped down and she keeps coming back and I think Irish women are like that." - Jacinta Whyte
"My favourite song to do it Sing River Shannon," she continues. "It’s got the most beautiful, poignant melody. It’s stunning but there are moments in this, Eoin Cannon sings the reprise of River Shannon with the whole company and he also sings a duet called The Promise so there are some beautiful moments - just when you think it’s gone really dark, you’re lifted up again."
Opening with the jaunty title number Angela’s Ashes as scene setter, the musical sticks broadly to the book’s narrative and tells the story of Angela, the young Limerick girl who goes to America and meets the less than trustworthy Malachy, becomes pregnant but loses the child and is forced to return to her poverty-stricken hometown - right back where she started out.
Get your tickets for @AngelasAshesIRE I'm obviously great but the others are f*cking brilliant!! You'll laugh and cry many times! @BGETheatre @CorkOperaHouse @gohbelfast @LimeTreeTheatre @FairfieldHalls @JacintaWhyte1 @EoinCan @BrigidShine @Minisavage @fionamarybrowne pic.twitter.com/iehoDDMn1u— Norma Sheahan (@normasheahan) July 24, 2019
"She’s a strong woman and it reminds me of all the stories my nana would have told me about my nanny and tough times," says Whyte. "There was poverty in Limerick but there was poverty in Dublin, In Cork, it was in London . . . it’s universal but the story of Angela is that she keeps getting slapped down and she keeps coming back and I think Irish women are like that."
The show heads to Croydon soon before playing a week-long run in Dublin in September but Norma Sheahan has bigger ideas for Angela’s Ashes The Musical. "It has to go to Broadway," she whispers. "I think it would be a disgrace if it doesn’t."
Angela’s Ashes the Musical is at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin from Monday, September 9th to Saturday, September 14th
Alan Corr @CorrAlan