Arts

Marty Maguire talks Angela's Ashes as the show prepares to return to the Grand Opera House

As Angela's Ashes returns triumphant to the Grand Opera House this week, Belfast actor Marty Maguire tells Gail Bell how it has been even more fulfilling to play Malachy McCourt second time around and why it was important to let his character 'breathe' a little more easily

Belfast actor Marty Maguire as Malachy McCourt in Angela's Ashes, which is on at the Grand Opera House in Belfast
Gail Bell

BEING a drunk from Northern Ireland comes naturally to Marty Maguire, who can pull off a 'man-who's-had-too-much' stagger just as convincingly as he might, on a different night, throw an intoxicated customer out of a nightclub.

From playing a doorman in the recent (and hugely successful) run of Bouncers at the Mac, the versatile Belfast actor this week steps back into the threadbare shoes of Malachy McCourt, the good-for-nothing alcoholic from Toome, Co Antrim, who casts a long shadow over his family in Angela's Ashes.

Based on Frank McCourt's bestselling memoir of the same name, the hit musical version is back at the Grand Opera House stage in Belfast for its second outing, before heading to Dublin, Cork and Croyden in London, where it makes its English debut.

To say Mr Maguire is excited would be to understate his palpable passion for the role which he made his own when the show launched in 2017, forcing the many sceptics to swallow whole some rather large helpings of humble pie.

"Everyone said, how depressing... they're making that bloody film into a musical..." sighs Maguire who has just finished a triumphant return to Limerick (where Frank McCourt grew up in the 30s and 40s) with the show and is itching to get back on stage in Belfast.

"I think the musical took a lot of people by surprise because we stayed away from the film and concentrated more on the book which has so much humour – it's hilarious – and there are really laugh-out-loud moments in the play.

"There was this idea abroad that it would be a misery-fest, but people tended to forget the musicals greats like Les Miserables, Blood Brothers and Oliver which are woven around poverty and misery. Things are always 'a joke' until proved otherwise."

It is pertinent to point out that although Maguire acts the drunk perfectly in the role of Frank McCourt's father, he was determined from the outset not to make him a one-dimensional character. Rather, he wanted to stir up a sense of compassion for someone caught up in poverty, tragedy, bereavement and, in many ways, the culture of the times.

"My intention was always to make Malachy more than a falling-down drunk, because then, who cares?" he reasons. "There has to be something else, so I went back and revisited the book and took special note of the section where the author, his son, Frank, refers to his father being like the Holy Trinity in that he had 'three people in him'.

"There was the one in the morning who told stories and drank tea, the one in the afternoon who went to work and the one who came back, late in the evening, smelling of drink and wanting to die for Ireland."

In reality, of course, Malachy McCourt could only drink for Ireland, but the Belfast actor still needed to stir up empathy, particularly since Frank himself never gave up on his father.

"He said the 'morning' father who used to sit down and tell stories was his 'real' father so it was important to bring that aspect of his character out for the audience," says Maguire, who was thrilled to meet the only surviving McCourt son, Malachy junior, at a performance in Limerick a few weeks ago.

"Malachy is now 88 and he wasn't well enough to come and see the show when we brought it to Limerick two years ago, but he came this time and he said a lovely thing; he said, 'You really captured the essence of my memories of my father because he wasn't all bad. He was a tortured soul, but he wasn't all bad.' That will do for me."

Another criticism of the book was similarly put to bed when an elderly lady came over to Maguire in Limerick after the curtain fell on opening night in 2017.

"This beautiful, little grey-haired lady, obviously advanced in years, had heard me talking after the show and she came over and said, 'Oh, you really are from the north', recounts Maguire, echoing her southern accent perfectly and with evident relish. "I said, jokingly, 'Oh, I'm a terrible actor, but I have the right accent and that's the only reason I got the part...

"I started to say how there were people who, after Angela's Ashes was published, denied that things, including the poverty, were ever that bad in Limerick, but before I got the sentence out of my mouth, she cut me off and said, 'It was, it was... and still is in places.

"She said she had felt like she was watching her own childhood, with all the poverty and humour thrown in – and the really great thing was the fact she had 'laughed and laughed'. That was a great moment for me and, two years later, people are still laughing through the tears."

Stepping back into the role for the second time, has been even more fulfilling, Maguire claims, because this time, he has had more time to "settle", to reflect and digest, and to see where the silent moments could be expanded.

"Silence really is golden," he says, "and because the first run of Angela's Ashes was quite short – we were all a bit nervous as to how it would be received, so it was run almost like an appetiser event – we didn't get to see where the timing could be better in places.

"You know, a lot of times on stage, it's what's not being said which is just as powerful as a big, long monologue. Those silences can be golden and they can be heartbreaking too and we wanted to go back and look at all that again.

"The director, Thom Sutherland, has been brilliant at letting the cast help find their comfort zones and allowing us the freedom just to take a breath... I think I have a better understanding of that and of the timing this time around – like how sometimes the audience just needs a moment to digest what they've just seen before switching gear and moving on to an entirely different scene which may be funnier, or more sad or intense."

It is strange to thing that for someone so zealous for his profession and with a string of theatre and TV credits to his name, Maguire had originally set out to be a psychologist or social worker until he was "kicked out" of university for failing the statistics part of the course exams.

"I had no plan," he says. "I was working in Topman in Belfast and then I did a production of Grease with the Ulster Youth Theatre which was on at the Grand Opera House. Marie Jones saw me and offered my first professional acting job in 1985 in a play called The Girls in the Big Picture.

"I've been doing this job ever since and I feel very blessed because it can be a precarious profession and at times it's either feast or famine. Playing Malachy McCourt has been a dream role for me because it makes you think beyond the obvious. I love that – to find the truth of a character underneath all the surface layers."

:: Angela's Ashes starring Marty Maguire as Malachy, Jacinta Whtye (Angela) and Eoin Cannon (Frank) runs at the Grand Opera House until Saturday. Information and booking at goh.co.uk

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