Angela's Ashes Comes to Life On-Stage at Grand Opera House

An interview with Belfast actor Marty Maguire who will be playing McCourt’s father, Malachy, in the musical take of this classic book

‘When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.’

These are the frequently quoted opening lines of Angela’s Ashes, one of the best-selling books of modern times. Frank McCourt called his Pulitzer Prize–winning account of his desolate Irish childhood ‘a memoir of woe’ before going on to reap the benefits of critical and public acclaim, Alan Parker's depressing, rain-drenched feature film and, now, eight years after his death, a stage show.

Angela's Ashes 1

Clare Barrett as Grandmother in Angela’s Ashes - The Musical

Grinding poverty, alcoholism, infant mortality, domestic violence and unremitting rain might not initially appear to offer promising pickings for a musical adaptation, though such subject matter never got in the way of hit shows like Oliver and Blood Brothers. Producer Pat Moylan certainly spotted the book’s potential, pointing out in a recent Irish Times interview that the bleakness of the Dickensian storyline is undercut by the richness of McCourt’s writing.

‘There is an awful lot of rain and grimness in the film version,’ she says. ‘But actually, when I read the book, it was the wit and the humour and the fun of Frank McCourt’s voice that came right through.’

Belfast actor Marty Maguire plays McCourt’s father Malachy in an inspired eleventh-hour piece of casting. Back in 2001/2 Maguire had wowed audiences in Los Angeles, New York, London, Edinburgh and Dublin with his virtuoso performance in Marie Jones’s one-man show A Night in November, produced by Moylan. There are few actors who can swagger and strut around a stage and eyeball the opposition quite like Maguire, qualities which stand him in good stead as this feckless paterfamilias, a man who sang and danced a lot but worked little.

‘The role of Malachy become available after a wee casting shuffle and I was absolutely delighted to be chosen for it’, he says.  

‘From the start, I was determined to avoid making him a cardboard cut-out character but a real father, with more to him than meets the eye. He’s a bit like the Holy Trinity. On one level he’s telling his children bedtime stories, encouraging them to use their imagination, describing their minds as palaces of stories. You can see where Frank got his gift for storytelling from. Then he’s out, desperately looking for work, always getting knocked back. And finally he’s on the booze, drinking away his last penny, leaving nothing over for his wife to feed the family.’

Angela's Ashes 3

Jacinta Whyte as Angela and Elaine Hearty as Mrs O’Connor in Angela’s Ashes - The Musical

The production opened in Limerick, the town where the McCourt children grew up. When the book was published local reaction was mixed, with many complaining that the poverty and deprivation he describes were exaggerated for literary effect. This time around, audience responses to the stage show have verged on ecstatic, praising the quality of production and performance alike. Maguire recalls being approached by an elderly lady when the cast gathered for an opening reception in the Lime Tree Theatre.

‘It was important to open in Limerick,’ he says. ‘This is where the story was born and bred. There were people in the audience who knew the family. To our great relief, they were unbelievably supportive. One lady came up to me afterwards. She grew up near the McCourts. She couldn’t believe my accent - ‘are you really from the North?’ she asked. Malachy was a Belfast man; he came from my part of the city, so yes I guess the accent is right. This lady said that the book was not exaggerated, not made up. Back then, children were dying in numbers. The poverty was that bad. It still is in some parts. Like Belfast. Responses to the book depended to some extent on where you grew up. If you were born into the leafy suburbs you’d see it an entirely different way than if you came from a socially deprived area.’

Angela's Ashes 4

Angela’s Ashes - The Musical

Like many other Northern actors, too numerous to list, Maguire is the product of Ulster Youth Theatre under the direction of Michael Poynor. He started acting when he was a pupil at De La Salle College in Belfast. Unsurprisingly, one of his earliest roles was in 1982 as Danny in Grease, a role for which his drama teacher subsequently suggested him to Poynor. Three years later, the raw but talented lad from the Lenadoon estate was bestriding the stage of the Grand Opera House from which point he has never looked back. With no formal drama school training, he threw himself into the variety of roles that came his way, learning as you go, as he puts it. His first major role came in 1986 in Charabanc’s The Girls in the Big Picture, arguably one of Marie Jones’s finest plays, in which he played the role of a cocky young rocker. It is a piece he would love to see revived, though he concedes he would now have to play the older male character, first played by Ian McElhinney. Another notable early success was alongside Sean Kearns in the Irish premiere of Lyle Kessler’s explosive play Orphans, whose 1987 Irish premiere was directed by Roy Heayberd for the Lyric.

In 1989, Maguire took off for the United States, basing himself in Los Angeles. He was there for almost twenty years, at the cutting edge of the acting profession, picking up work wherever he could and gaining valuable life experience. He returned to Northern Ireland in 2008 and has since been constantly in demand.

Marty Maguire in Angela's Ashes

Marty Maguire as Malachy in Angela’s Ashes - The Musical

‘Northern Ireland theatre has been very good to me and I’m very grateful for all the work I have got since coming home. I’ve done serious drama, musicals, comedy. Every role is different and each one is as important as the last. Professionalism is the key. You show up on time, you do the job, you are consistent and supportive of others. If you always set out to keep your head down and do your best, people will want to work with you again.

‘This is an amazing cast. There are some seriously fine performers on stage. The quality of the singing is ridiculous. Jacinta White, who plays Angela, and Eoin Cannon, who plays Frank, are top-notch performers with major West End credits. Eoin has this big massive voice, then there’s me croaking away! Brigid Shine from Belfast, who plays Frank’s first girlfriend, was in Martin Lynch and Gary Mitchell’s The People of Gallagher Street with me. She has a great future ahead of her. Everyone works incredibly hard and keeps one another going. They are fascinated by what’s going on in the North and are always asking me about the bonfires and the DUP! They don’t understand the divisions in our society. In the arts, different people just get on and work together, regardless of colour, religion, age, background … all that stuff.'

In preparation for opening night and the subsequent tour, cast and creative team worked very long, hard hours on what Maguire describes as ‘this big, intricate piece’. It's so complex and delicate, like a dance which has been beautifully and very precisely choreographed.  

Angela's Ashes 2

Eoin Cannon as Frank and Brigid Shine as Teresa in Angela’s Ashes - The Musical

‘Our director Thom Sutherland had a very clear vision for the style of presentation. He, the writer Paul Hurt and Adam Howell, who did the music and the lyrics, have been very clever in taking a scalpel to the book, then reassembling and fine tuning it. It’s like one of those difficult jigsaw puzzles.The beats between the scenes have to be very precisely timed to get them absolutely right. As actors, we are all involved in moving the set. If you are central to a scene, it’s brilliant to watch the set building and moving in around you.

‘It’s a joy to be playing Malachy. It would be easy to make him a cliché, a hopeless, violent alcoholic but he was very much a product of his time and place. Things never went well for him. He took the decision to emigrate to the States but that didn’t work out so he brought the family back to Ireland, to the awful life described in the book. Eventually he took off for England and hardly saw his kids again.

‘I actually remember him. In his old age, he left England and returned to Belfast. He lived in a wee pensioner’s flat in the Lenadoon estate, where I grew up. In the late 1970s I worked as a waiter in the Hunting Lodge Bar and I can still see this sad old fella sitting up at the bar on his own, staring into his pint. The bars in Ireland were full of men like him. They were lost souls. It was many years later that I realised that he was Malachy McCourt, Frank’s da. And now, here I am, playing him on the stage. Funny old world, isn’t it?’

Angela’s Ashes - The Musical is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from 1 to 5 August. Tickets can be bought at www.goh.co.uk.