It's a truth universally acknowledged that not every novel has to be adapted into a musical – for every Les Mis or Phantom, there's always a Behind the Iron Mask or Moby Dick waiting to be made. For a piece to work, it has to justify its presence on the stage – working in tandem with but never relying too heavily on its source material.
In that respect, the theatrical version of Frank McCourt's well-known memoir (the book is regularly taught on the curriculum) is a thriving success. Underneath the de-saturated, gloomy Limerick of Francis O'Connor's versatile set lies a glowingly powerful and joyous show. It runs in London for the first time (at the newly opened Ashcroft Playhouse in Croydon) after premiering in 2017 over the Irish Sea.
McCourt's early life is full of tragedy and suffering – absent parents, scarce income, dead siblings, tuberculosis, domestic abuse and poverty. It's never an easy watch, with the spectres of McCourt's life haunting O'Connor's set in director Thom Southerland's swift and economic production (some characters from the book are merged, while others are cut completely). But, like the flickering candles that litter the window panes on O'Connor's set, hope manages to survive – in McCourt's case the hope of fleeing abroad to America, where there are chances of a brighter future.
Southerland repeats the trick he pulled off magnificently in Titanic – giving every character a moment to shine even in the face of tragedy. It's helped by some solid performances – Eoin Cannon deftly plays Frank right the way from newborn to man, while Jacinta Whyte's (as Frank's stoic mother Angela) ode to the river Shannon is stirring and charged. There is also a touching, hauntingly brief romance between McCourt and his ill lover Theresa Carmody (Brigid Shine) – their saturated, sepia number on top of a spinning staircase a momentary beam of light among the dark fog.
But the real stars here are Adam Howell (music and lyrics), Colm Ó Foghlú and Joe Csibi (arrangements and orchestrations). Using quintessential gaelic charm, every number glistens through a series of well-wrought harmonies, belted out with earnest aplomb by the constantly committed ensemble.
You'd never expect McCourt's account to work so comfortably on the stage, but the same was probably being said of a certain Victor Hugo novel over 30 years ago – this is a piece well worth watching before it sails out of the capital.