Frank Speaking

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.

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

8 responses to “Frank Speaking

  • JFK

    I have seen almost every West end show including the Les Mis 3hr show in London. In my view, this Angela’s Ashes leaves them all standing miles behind. It was simply brilliant, funny, sad and converted the whole audience to a full standing avation. Anyone who understand theatre should seek to attend the next viewing which will be in Ireland and New York . . . Well done to the Musical Director for making a life changing experience.

  • SJ

    While I would commend everyone involved in this ambitious project I too have seen most West End Musicals including Les Mis and would agree in comparison that the review posted on this blog is both fair and honest. The production has a lot of potential and I wish it every success but there is repetition that needs editing and some of the songs are weak. I also agree that I didn’t understand why ‘Angela’s Ashes were calling’ – perhaps someone would enlighten me?

  • Jonathan Morely

    I went to see Angela’s Ashes, A Musical last November at the Derby Theatre and by chance came across this review/comments of the production and (for what it’s worth) thought I would contribute…
    I was interested to see this musical. A friend bought me the ticket and having seen the film version and being aware of the saddness of the story my expectations were low, yet still I was curious as to how this could be made into a musical.
    Although I have no theatre background or training, like many people I am a ‘fan’ of the musicals; I have seen several shows over the years in the West End and a couple on Broadway (some good – some not!) but Angela’s Ashes was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent in the Derby Theatre and in the theatre in general. The show took me completely by surprise; it was funny, well executed, memorable and a truely wonderful experience. Even now as I write this I am humming the tunes I can STILL remember… “Angela’s Ashes are calling…” (my understanding of this lyric was that Frank’s mother’s ashes are calling him back to tell the story of growing up in Limerick – but that was my take on it!) My only negative feeling about the show was it’s length but I am sure the writers/director have sorted this for it’s future life (which I have no doubt this show will have) and some of the accents needed work but again – something which I am sure would be fixed. I would certainly see this show again and hope the Company bring it back to Derby.

    Jonathan Morely

  • Sarah Hynes

    Great show!!! A very entertaining evening and an utter surprise. I would highly recommend anyone to see Angela’s Ashes. Funny, sad and the songs are the highlight of the evening. My whole family loved it and we’d all see it again!

  • Mikey

    I didn’t see the student production but I understand it received standing ovations in both Derby and Limerick. It has now been turned into a professional production with the same writing team and is currently on in Limerick where I am due to see it. It has again received standing ovations every might and all the reviews are amazing.

    We went into the tourist information office in Limerick yesterday and discovered the person helping us was going to see it that night and then we had the same experience in the Pandora shop. There is a real buzz about it which is making us more excited to see it.

    From Limerick the musical is moving to Dublin and then Belfast. Interestingly Ireland has never had a musical go onto the West End but this is tipped to be the first.

    What is impressive listening to the locals talk about it on radio, is that the English writers have captured the “Irishness perfectly”!

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