Review: Angela's Ashes

Time for more legendary literature to face the music and dance as Angela’s Ashes, otherwise known as Frank McCourt’s memoirs, get very much the Blood Brothers treatment. While it doesn’t quite attain the level poignancy and humour in Willy Russell’s musical masterwork, it’s certainly not for lack of trying: Paul Hurt’s book, Adam Howell’s show tunes and Thom Southerland’s direction capture a warm, epic vibe to go with an already heartfelt story, thereby wholly winning over a crammed Grand Opera House on its World Premiere run.

Emigration and coming-of-age are very well trodden narrative paths in literature, theatre, film or television. Hence this Angela’s Ashes, hereafter Angela’s Ashes ‘17, is about accentuating the familiar on a monumental scale, grand songs and grand technique performed and produced by a cast and crew close to their inspirations and close to home.

For the uninitiated, Angela’s Ashes ‘17 chronicles not an emigration but a counter-emigration, where a 1930s Irish family chooses to return home from America. That family is Malachy McCourt (Marty Maguire), his wife Angela (West End star Jacinta Whyte) and their four children, following the passing away of the fifth McCourt child at only seven weeks.

It then develops into less a Blood Brothers and more a Blood Brother, Mother and Father, where a series of characters around Malachy, Angela and Frank McCourt (Eoin Cannon) act as peripheral to the lives at the heart of a struggling yet eventually endearing family, in which Frank’s ascension into adulthood is central.
Yes, I said eventually. Because, despite commanding showings from Belfast’s Marty Maguire as the alcoholic yet tragic Malachy, and Jacinta Whyte as the admirable matriarch Angela, the whole idea of Angela’s Ashes ‘17 seems rather hit and miss in the first act.

While the solos and duets flow with grace, the larger choral numbers feel uneasy - I suspect that this is because the production as a whole is still in its infancy. Call it “early days” syndrome.
But Angela’s Ashes ‘17 survives and, in the second act, really thrives. One to watch is Brigid Shine, who triumphantly pulls off the truncated but heartbreaking role of Frank’s first true love Theresa Carmody.

Despite her short stage time, Shine wins for Theresa a very deeply felt connection. I am convinced that real tears are shed when - and I am barely dropping a spoiler here - her devastating passing must come, as one knows it will. And one doesn’t even need to project - this element of the story is wrenching enough in its own right.

It is neither sappy nor exploitative.
Also impressive - as he must be - is Eoin Cannon, who transforms from a Cannon withheld to a Cannon unleashed. Early on, he plays Frank serviceably. Then “serviceably” becomes “well” as he grows into the part. But then that singing voice of his - often heard in Riverdance - booms out, and one wonders, where on earth has he been hiding?
And then, one realises that this has been the whole point of Frank’s character development: from naïve, to uncertain, to erratic, to a tower of strength.

Arguably, his transitional period sums up the entire production.
A first act in which the cast have sort of held back a little, finding their way into the material and not quite ready to unleash their singing voices as they know they can be unleashed, slowly but steadily burgeons - save one iffy high note at the very end - into a smoothly symphonic take on a classic, familiar story.

We’ve all known people like Malachy, Angela and Frank. We’ve all known musicals like Angela’s Ashes ‘17. And I think we all know and feel how powerful and poignant a show it can be, and has been. Let’s hope the songs - like Frank McCourt’s story - can, and will, last.

Simon Fallaha

Angela’s Ashes ran at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, until Saturday 05 August. For more information go to

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