ANGELA’S ASHES – The Musical
Derby Theatre, Thursday 1st November, 2012
“Angela’s ashes are calling, Angela’s ashes are falling…” This first couplet of the opening number sent a shudder down my spine. I was reminded of The Simpsons’ musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire and was filled with dread. Fortunately, the title song is the worst one in this lively and faithful adaptation of the childhood memoirs of Frank McCourt.
Writers Paul Hurt (book) and Adam Howell (music and lyrics) have such affection for their source material they are loath to miss anything out. The result is a detailed, busy show that is just too long for comfort. Instead of heart-warming, it’s bum-numbing at almost three-and-a-half hours. What it needs more than anything is a big pair of scissors. When adapting material into another form, you are allowed to miss things out. You can conflate incidents so we get the gist, rather than playing everything out. A case in point is the opening of the second act. Characters gather to wait for the telegraph boy who will bring money orders from their spouses in England. They talk about this. The narrator explains what they’re up to. We are then given a song called Waiting For the Telegram Boy, which does exactly the same job. Scene or song – both are acceptable, but give us one or the other, not both.
The action is linked with McCourt’s wry wit by narrator Frank (Will Jessop) who also steps in and out of role as a teacher and a priest. Younger Frank (Theo Knowles) plays pigeon-toed, shuffling youth very well but perhaps needs to bring in more signs of growing up into his body language as the story progresses. When his mother complains I Don’t Know Him Anymore he has hardly changed at all.
I have the feeling that the cast was picked for their vocal rather than their acting abilities. The singing is very good indeed but the accents are patchy. For me, the standout performance comes from Kirsty Maycock as Aunt Aggie; a rich singing voice and a powerful, dignified stage presence, able to convey strong emotion with economy. Her contribution to Sing River Shannon is marvellous, as is her rendition of The Child Of Mine – although this reprise adds to the running time.
The score has an Irish lilt to it but I think they should reconsider the arrangements. The electric guitars bring us out of the 1940s and give the score a Blood Brothers feel. I would like to hear more of the tin whistle, some fiddles and some Irish pipes to give the piece the local colour with which the dialogue is rich. The song that got the best reception was young Frank’s ebullient confession to masturbating at every opportunity – a raucous and funny moment that the earlier drinking song, Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Lay! (think Lionel Bart’s Oom-Pa-Pa censored within an inch of its life) could do well to emulate.
The cast works hard. Director Yvonne Hurt keeps the staging simple but effective so that this tale of unrelenting misery, deprivation and infant mortality entertains, but I go back to my main point: it’s just too long. It ends, at ten to eleven, with a reprise of the title song. I wondered for most of my journey home why it’s called Angela’s Ashes in the first place. All I could think of is it’s a reference to the ashes of the cigarettes Angela (Frank’s mother) enjoys – one of the few pleasures in her life. Why these would be calling, I cannot imagine.