Yes, yes; it sounds like the most inappropriate idea for a musical since Rent but Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes, has been adapted for the stage and will very soon make its local debut. But Rent was a smash hit and its creators are hoping that this show might follow that lead.
I’m sure many people will be sceptical after Alan Parker’s film adaptation of Angela’s Ashes, which truly captured the ‘misery lit’ aspect of the book and left us all pondering, ‘how many rain machines does it take to make Limerick look that uninviting?’
I recently spoke to composer and lyricist, Adam Howell, and the actress playing Angela herself, Sarah Ayrton, about the musical—which will run in The Lime Tree Theatre next week from July 17-20.
It will focus on the uplifting, life affirming moments in the book, which has incredible “warmth and humour”. For Adam, the show is a real labour of love.
“I read the book first when I was 15; I’m 26 now. I was quite inspired to think it would make a good stage adaptation, purely because I thought Frank McCourt’s writing was so lyrical and funny. There is obviously great sadness in the book but also quite a lot of humour as well. It really sang to me; I could see songs in certain scenes and thought it would flow quite nicely,” he said.
“It went on hold for quite a while because many people told me I probably wouldn’t be able to get the permission to do the production. About five years ago, myself and another graduate from the University of Derby set up a theatre company called Uncontained Arts and it gave me a bit of leeway to put on a production. We put it on last November and I collaborated with Paul Hurt, who adapted the book into a script, and very kindly worked around my ideas because I had some very strong opinions and feelings on the show from having worked on it for 11 years. He was very sensitive to that, which was great.”
Uncontained Arts is producing AATM in association with Theatre Works, which is also based at the University of Derby, and brings together student performers as well as professionals, lecturers, community actors etc.
The musical debuted in the Derby Theatre, putting on five shows late last year. Frank McCourt’s widow, Ellen, and his brother, Alphie, were in the audience along with Una Heaton and her team from the Frank McCourt Museum on Hartstonge Street. Though “daunting” according to Adam, it got a seal of approval from everyone. They were all “so positive” about the interpretation. Every show got a standing ovation and audience members gave great personal feedback.
He emphasised that there was a feeling of being involved with “something special” and “touch wood, that’s what we’re going to get in Limerick”. He welcomed any feedback audiences here could give and was very much looking forward to local people seeing the show.
“If we can handle the Limerick audience as this is a Limerick story and a Limerick man, I think we’ll be able to handle any audience in the world”.
Adam confessed that he is both a little scared and excited to stage it here because an English company is bringing what some see as a “controversial” book to a local and Irish audience.
“We’re either brave or stupid. One thing that inspired me with this story is the fact that I do have an Irish background with my grandparents. I wanted to write something that had an Irish feel in the music because of my own heritage. I feel I can say I can write an Irish musical because of that,” he added.
“We say a lot, ‘Is it that the book appeals to Irish people, or to Catholics?’ But I just think it’s a pure human story. The things he goes through, even though he goes through them on a very dire level compared to most of our standards now, the whole thing with his first love and loss and ‘the excitement’, they are all aspects of the human experience. That is why audiences relate to it on that level. With musicals, not to be derogatory in any way, but there aren’t that many modern musicals that have that kind of pull-in. As a musical theatre fan myself, I don’t think there is anything at the moment that kind of pulls me into the story like that with a real core to it. I hope that’s what we do really.”
Sarah, when asked about her leading role, said: “When I first got the part I didn’t think about that but then about a week before the show I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m Angela in Angela’s Ashes!’ I am a bit nervous about coming to Limerick but also really excited. I’ll try and do my best.”
After studying musical theatre, she worked in several productions and played leads before but thinks there is “something a bit special about this role”.
“It’s challenging acting wise and singing wise as well but it’s so great to be able to play the role. There’s a lot of comedy in the musical and the book as well but Angela’s not very comical. I have to be the one who is quite sad all the way through but it’s a great role. I come away after the show feeling very exhausted.”
Both Adam and Sarah remarked on “how many characters” they met in Limerick so they have gotten a real local taste and feel for the place.
“We’re going to go back and tell the chorus in our show that ‘You’re not just a herd of sheep here; Limerick people are all characters and you can make those personalities on the stage.”
After hearing about it, I’m really looking forward to seeing Angela’s Ashes: The Musical in action. I love the book (and have written about it before) and I very much hope that this adaptation will do it justice.
Tickets are priced from €15.00-€23.00. For more information, see www.limetreetheatre.ie.