After being closed for three years and at a refurbishment cost of around £42 million, the Fairfield Halls in Croydon has finally re-opened. Within its bright, shiny interior is the much-missed Ashcroft Playhouse (previously the Ashcroft Theatre) named after Dame Peggy Ashcroft who was born nearby and last night it had its first professional production since being re-dedicated by Dame Judy Dench and what a production it is.
Angela’s Ashes The Musical is based on Frank McCourt’s memoir of his early life in Limerick. Not the most obvious choice for a musical as the book (and later the film) portrays a very grim life as McCourt’s mother Angela struggles with abject poverty, a feckless drunk of a husband, homelessness and the death of a couple of her babies.
However, the musical whilst revealing the awfulness of the family’s situation, is funny, uplifting, sad, revealing and thought-provoking and whilst it’s certainly tear-jerking, often they are tears of joy. The story starts in Brooklyn in the thirties where the family are living but due to a lack of work, they return to their roots in Limerick although this is a problem for Malachy the patriarch of the family who’s from Northern Ireland and doesn’t really fit in to this town in the south. However, the story is really about Frank who narrates throughout and his relationship with his mother, brother, friends and people of the town. We follow him from a young innocent boy through adolescence into early adulthood and what a journey it is with its highs and lows as Frank and Angela try to hold the family together in trying circumstances.
Angela’s Ashes The Musical has already been on tour this year in Limerick, Belfast, Dublin and Cork before coming to Croydon for two weeks, so the incredible cast of thirteen along with the six-piece band, have been able to hone the production into a well-oiled machine where everything runs smoothly. The cast features some of the crème de la crème of Ireland’s musical theatre performers including Jacinta White as Angela, whose performance tugs at the heartstrings and makes us feel for her as she struggles to make ends meet whilst bringing up her children single handedly. Her ballad in the second act which I think was called “I Don’t Love You Anymore” (there’s no song list in the programme) had some of the audience reaching for their tissues. Eoin Cannon as Frank is engaging as he ages and matures and becomes the breadwinner in the family. He sings like a dream and we’re swept away by the narrative and engrossed in the family’s story. The rest of the cast are all superb too – there’s not a weak link amongst them as they change from one character to another seamlessly.
Adam Howell has written some wonderful, soaring melodies that incorporate Irish traditional folk music at its most rousing as well as conventional musical theatre – it’s an intoxicating blend. His lyrics are never trite and move the plot along effortlessly. Paul Hurt’s book is a mixture of Irish humour, poetic dialogue and pathos although you can feel the pen of Frank McCourt hovering over Hurt and Howell’s computer keyboards and helping to give the text the distinctive Irish dry wit that for centuries has helped the people of Ireland triumph over adversity.
The band led superbly by David Hayes on keyboards, uses traditional acoustic folk instruments such as Irish whistle, accordion, violin and bodhran and complements the voices of the performers without intruding or overwhelming them. It also accompanies the scene changes as beds, tables and couches are wheeled on and off giving the piece a cinematic feel.
Thom Southerland’s direction is masterful as the characters develop throughout the piece as we grow to love some and really dislike others! The set by Francis O’Connor consists of two levels with the upper floor’s balustrade made up of old bedsteads and a metal staircase links the two. The set moves with grace and almost becomes another character and is reminiscent of the sets Southerland worked with at the Charing Cross Theatre in his productions of “Titanic” and “Parade”.
All in all, Ashes To Ashes The Musical is a triumph and deserves a West End transfer as it’s far better than a number of musicals that have been staged there over the past few years, if not currently! Frank McCourt died in 2009 so he didn’t get a chance to see his memoir turned into a musical. Had he seen it, he probably would have been surprised but almost certainly very proud to see what Howell, Hart, Southerland, and their creative team along with nineteen superb performers and musicians have done with his eventful life.
Review by Alan Fitter
With music and lyrics by Adam Howell and book by Paul Hurt, this major musical adaptation of Frank McCourt’s best-selling memoir is directed by Thom Southerland and tells the remarkable story of the author’s childhood in Limerick and of the McCourt family’s inspirational rise from adversity to triumph.
As his parents struggle to provide for him and his brothers in 1940s Ireland, we follow young Frank’s escapades and experiences in a Dickensian landscape peopled by a drunken father, a helpless mother, pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters and money-lenders culminating in his defiant escape to a new life in America.
Irish musical theatre legend Jacinta Whyte returns to the production to star as ‘Angela’, alongside Eoin Cannon as Frank and Marty Maguire as ‘Malachy’.
The full cast includes Norma Sheahan as ‘Mrs Finucane’, Amanda Minihan as ‘Grandma’, Bryan Burroughs as ‘Quasimodo’, Connor Gormley as ‘Malachy Jnr’, Fiona Browne as ‘Nora’, Michael Joseph as ‘Billy Heffernan’, David O’Meara as ‘Uncle Pat’, Mark O’Regan as ‘Mr Griffin’, Brigid Shine as ‘Theresa Carmody’ and Cáit Moloney as ensemble.
Music & Lyrics – Adam Howell, Book by Paul Hurt, based on a memoire by Frank McCourt.
Directed by Thom Southerland
Supported by Culture Ireland
Booking to Saturday 5th October, 2019