Saturday 16 December 2017

'There is tragedy but there is also joy, hope, and optimism' - Angela's Ashes the Musical won't be as grim as film adaptation

Jacinta Whyte Photo: Hannah McKay
Jacinta Whyte Photo: Hannah McKay
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Angela's Ashes the musical has as many comedic moments as tragic moments, according to the director and stars of the show.

A sneak preview of the production reveals the tone more closely resembles that of Frank McCourt's 1996 memoir than the rather grim big screen adaptation which was released in 1999.

The book tells the story of McCourt's childhood starting out in Brooklyn, New York, but mainly focusing on family life in Limerick in the 1940s when his mother had to raise her family in poverty with an alcoholic husband.

"It's associated with tragedy but there is also joy, hope, and optimism," says director Thom Sutherland, while star Jacinta Whyte, who plays the matriarch Angela, adds, "It is as funny as it is sad."

"I loved the book and then I saw the film and I thought, 'Oh I don't really like that.  It's a big grim and boring and everybody died," she adds.

"Then I was sent this script and I thought okay, this is as funny as it is sad.  One minute she's crying over the baby dying and then next Frankie is making his communion and his granny is spitting on his hair to make his hair stay down."

Jacinta, who has had roles in productions as diverse as Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Greece, Aspects of Love and The American Wife, describes it as "a combination of Les Miserables and an Irish Blood Brothers."

It's an original musical with original songs including a very emotional number called River Shannon, which is sung by Angela after the death of one of her children, and is one of Jactina's favourites, although she says there are some very enjoyable funny numbers too.

Playing Angela, who was a real person, comes with a little pressure, as Jactina hopes to do the woman justice with her portrayal.

"Everybody keeps saying she's downtrodden and the Irish pious woman but I think there's a real core of strength," she says.

"Most of the Irish women I know are very strong women.  If you think back, way, way back what these people had to put up with, the kind of poverty they lived in, and they survived. 

"For me Angela's core is her strength.  The things she goes through, losing her children, her husband's an alcoholic and walking out on her, she's left to forage and look after these kids as best she can, begging at the St Vincent De Paul charity, begging at the church door for the priest's leftover dinner.  It's still happening today."

She adds, "I'm looking at my nana's era, and my nana's mother's era and what they went through and the poverty.  Men worked and women stayed at home with the children and they could only feed them if the men didn't drink the money in the pub.

"There is pressure [playing Angela] because I want to be true to Angela.  She was a real woamn.  She lived and breathed."

The late Frank McCourt's younger brother Malachy, who is played by young actor Emmet Byrne in the musical, is still alive and will come to see the show when it opens in Limerick next month.  Frank's widow Ellen has also been behind the production from the beginning.

"I hope what I bring that Malachy won't say, 'My mother wasn't like that at all.'" says Jacinta.  "I hope what you're lifting from the book and what you're doing portrays it.  All you can do as an actor or actress is read what you can take and then apply in layer upon layer.

"When I look at Emmet and Owen who are playing my sons I ask how I would deal with my own son [Callum (14)] in that situation.  How would I deal with a husband if he was a drunken alcoholic?  Thankfully mine isn't - he's a gorgeous pussycat - but what would I do?"

Being an Irish mammy has helped her with the role, she laughs, "I might live in the UK with an English husband and an English son but there's an Irish mammy at the core!"

Angela's Ashes will play Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick from 6 -15 July, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin from 18 – 30 July and Grand Opera House, Belfast from 1 – 5 August.  Tickets are on sale now.

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