Adam Howell and Paul Hurt have managed to translate Frank McCourt’s colorful, touching childhood memoir into a musical play with well drawn, winnowed down characters and the spirit of Ireland, including liquor, language, family and music. Like the book, this piece pulls no punches either, concerning the author’s alcoholic father (and uncle) or his own guilt-ridden theft in the name of personal freedom.
The play is beautifully staged with fluidly moving scenery, essentials only (including balcony and stairs), pitch perfect costumes (both by Frances O’Connor), and subtle atmospheric lighting (Sinead McKenna) that gives a tinge of the past to everything.
“When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived it at all…It was, of course a miserable childhood. A happy childhood is hardly worth your while…a miserable Irish Catholic childhood…” (Eoin Cannon as Frank)
Marty Maguire and Jacinta Whyte
Having aligned with the IRA, Malachy McCourt (Marty Maguire) was a fugitive; his wife Angela, née Sheehan (Jacinta Whyte), escaping a slum when the couple emigrated to New York. “They were made for dancin’ and each other…quickly sharin’ a knee trembler: doin’ the act up against a wall,” Frank narrates. There was a shotgun wedding. Angela knew Malachy driank too much, but insidious alcoholism sneaks up on loved ones. Frank’s father can’t hold a job. With more family than she intended, Angela loses a baby, then has another. She sings a lullaby, her husband counters with promises, but ends up back at the local tavern. It’s the Depression. They can’t manage.
Forced to move back to Limerick (Ireland) – “anyone who had any sense was goin’ the other way” – the McCourt’s secure two weeks rent from Gran (a gruff, well seasoned Amala Minihan). The cramped tenement apartment is owned by heartless Mrs. Finucane (Norma Shine, whose persona vibrates with the meanness of a Dickens character). We meet a rigid pastor and the family’s neighbors. A second baby is lost. They’re on the dole or worse.
Additional pledges are made and broken. Angela survives at the center of a cyclone – until… (There are more deaths and geographic moves in the book.) These are Frank’s young days, until he’s 18…the way his mam manages to put a roof over the family’s head by making what he sees as a devil’s bargain, good-for-nothing Malachy, Frank’s first job and first (doomed) love (Brigid Shine as gentle Teresa Carmody), the hero’s escape to America. The rest is epilogue.
Direction is excellent. Not only do players imbue their characters with life force, but details proliferate. When Angela’s baby dies, another woman takes the blanket from her and neatly folds it- it is, in fact only a blanket. For “She Married a Northern Man” (anathema in Limerick), the company sings while banging chairs on the floor for emphasis; at another point, choreographed arms and legs move while seated. (Movement Director Ste Clough.) The larger set advances and retreats with hydraulics, otherwise its elements are manually shifted, as if by the winds of time and circumstance.
Jacinta Whyte, Eoin Cannon
Jacinta Whyte manifests Frank McCourt’s stoic, practical mam, Angela, who can’t bear what’s happening, but never tells Malachy to get out of their lives. The actress renders a kind of battleworn grace the author attributed to his mother.
Marty Maguire’s Malachy is a credibly boisterous, slippery drunk, hearing only what he wants to, propelled by a singular, self-recriminating vision.
Eoin Cannon (Frank McCourt) does less well during the boy’s younger days, better during his later teens. More visible emotion would engender sympathy. As an implicitly older man looking back, he provides ballast.
You won’t go home humming this score or remember a verse, but music and lyrics are right for the piece. Voices are all excellent, vocal arrangements wonderful. The story is vivid and touching.
Photos Courtesy of Irish Repertory Theatre
Irish Rep and Pat Moylan present
Angela’s Ashes, the Musical
Music/Lyrics – Adam Howell
Book – Adam Howell & Paul Hurt
Based on the memoir by Frank McCourt
Directed by Thom Southerland
Musical Director/Keyboard – David Hayes
The Olympia Theatre, Dublin