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T&L Reviews: Angela’s Ashes at Fairfield Halls

Jenny Booth reviews Angela’s Ashes at the new Croydon venue, Fairfield Halls

⭐⭐⭐⭐

What a splendid, spacious new venue Croydon has in the revamped Fairfield Halls, which opened its doors last week in the presence of Dame Judi Dench.

And what a great idea it was to programme Angela’s Ashes the Musical as one of the flagship shows in the Halls’ opening weeks. Highly acclaimed in Ireland, this accomplished and warm-hearted production is making its first appearance in England this week and is very much worth seeing.

It restores the humour and humanity to Frank McCourt’s account of his poverty-stricken Irish childhood, which over the years has built up a reputation as a misery memoir, partly due to Alan Parker’s grim film version of the story.

The action takes place amid scenes of such Dickensian deprivation it’s hard to believe it’s set in the 1940s and not the 1840s. The story has two heroes – Frank, the narrator, and his mother Angela, and for both of them it is a coming-of age tale.

Jacinta Whyte as Angela has the most complex character to portray, and she is excellent from the outset, enjoying the first carefree flush of marriage to the handsome ne’er-do-well, Malachy McCourt. But cares quickly intrude, as Malachy proves unable to hold down a job and drinks away what little money the family gets. Poverty steals the lives of two of their children and Angela is painfully forced to grow up and take responsibility for her remaining youngsters. She accepts humiliation and worse to keep them fed, and by the end has lived down her mother’s casual dismissal of her as ‘useless’.

The first act is dominated by strong, urgent musical numbers, powerfully choreographed and making full use of the remarkable set with its moving walkway and staircase. The music and the action become softer and tug on the heartstrings in the second half. Both Angela and Frank’s characters unfold and the audience’s hearts go out to them – particularly to Eoin Cannon’s Frank whose first experience of love is tender and doomed.

The show condenses the story and prunes the cast of characters, but feels faithful to the spirit of the book and its life-affirming themes. The comedy of the grotesque characters is well brought out by Mark O’Regan as lecherous hypocrite Mr Griffin, and Norma Sheahan as flinty moneylender Mrs Finucane. In a strong cast Marty Maguire also deserves singling out for his performance as guilt-ridden and self-justifying Malachy, sober or roaring drunk.

So head to Croydon for an excellent and enjoyable show, but beware of one thing – there isn’t a car park within ten minutes’ walk. The Whitgift Centre is your nearest. Don’t end up, like me, with a parking ticket.

25 September – 5 October; 2pm & 7.45pm; from £15
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by Jenny Booth
@jennydotbooth /@culturevult