Say what? A musical about a misery-lit classic ‘Angela’s Ashes’? How on earth was that going to work? The book told the tale of a young Frank McCourt, whose Limerick mother Angela, and Antrim father Malachy move back to Limerick from Brooklyn during the Great Depression while Frank is just an infant. They live lives of abject misery and poverty in the tenement slums of Limerick, largely because of Malachy’s alcoholism. Dead siblings, hunger, relentless rain, fleas, consumption, outdoor facilities shared with the street, it was an unremittingly grim tale. Eventually Malachy relocates to Coventry, where he drinks his wages and rarely sends a copper to feed his hungry clan. Angela and the children are evicted, and she becomes the ‘housekeeper’ for her sinister older cousin. Frank takes work as a telegram delivery boy who vows to save all his pennies and return one day to America to make his fortune.
The book was a sensation when it was published in 1996, going on to sell tens of millions of copies and inventing a whole new genre of memoir – misery lit (or ‘Daddy, please stop. Why are you hurting me so?’ as I prefer to call the genre). Despite the unrelenting horror of the tale, the love McCourt felt for his family elevated the book to classic status.
The film based on the book was released in 1999 and was notable for its grindingly dank, bleak and hopeless portrayal of McCourt’s early life. Transferring this to the musical theatre stage was clearly going to be a challenge. It’s been done before of course – both ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Blood Brothers’ can hardly be described as joyous and uplifting, but both are classics. Jazz hands can also play their part in tales of wintry bleakness.
I am blessed where I live, in terms of access to musical theatre, living as I do in the centre of Dublin, and only a ten minute stroll from the Bord Gais Energy Theatre – a venue firmly embedded on the schedules of the touring West End Shows. As a result it’s a rare occurrence to see an Irish show. ‘Angela’s Ashes’ is only the second Irish musical I have seen. The first one I saw was ‘The unlucky cabin boy’ in the Draiocht Theatre in Blanchardstown in November 2015, just weeks after my arrival in Dublin. That tale – about cannibalism at sea – was also a Limerick tale. There’s something musical in the waters of the Cranberries’ home town clearly.
For ‘Angela’s Ashes’ I had performed my usual gamble of buying the cheapest seat in the house on the upper balcony on opening night, and then hoping for an upgrade to a better seat when I collected the ticket. And so it came to pass – I was placed in the front row of the circle – a prime location.
It’s a wonderful show. The plot follows the narrative of the book, from Angela and Malachy’s first meeting, to Frank’s departure to America at the age of eighteen. Narrated by the excellent Eoin Cannon who plays Frank, the music throughout is heartfelt and moving – from the rousing opening number ‘Angela’s Ashes’ to the ‘Sing River Shannon’ lament (sung by the brilliant Jacinta Whyte who plays Angela). Interspersed throughout the tragedy are moments of side-splitting comedy – with special praise reserved Norma Sheahan who plays the wicked witch of the Mid-West – slum-lord and money-lender Frances Philomena Finola Finucane.
An upsetting, uplifting and hilarious tale, ‘Angela’s Ashes’ plays in Dublin until Saturday before transferring to the Everyman Theatre in Cork, and then on to London. A fantastic show. Go see it.