The Iron Annie Cabaret: bringing a book to life

Luke Cassidy: ‘I wanted to celebrate the book, but also the people and the place who inspired it’

The Iron Annie Cabaret, starring Eleanor McLoughlin. Photograph: Will Alder

The Iron Annie Cabaret, starring Eleanor McLoughlin. Photograph: Will Alder

 

The Iron Annie Cabaret premiered on October 8th at An Táin Arts Centre in Dundalk. Which makes sense – I adapted the cabaret from Iron Annie, a novel primarily set in the town, written in the Dundalk vernacular. It’s also how the idea of the cabaret, a one-woman play accompanied by two bands performing rock and folk music, came about. I wanted to celebrate the book, but also the people, and the place who inspired it. I wanted to celebrate the Town.

The project started off as a fairly humble musing; wouldn’t it be nice to launch my book, which was published last month by Bloomsbury, by doing readings book-ended by live music. Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of time to muse, and I came up with a full theatric production with an actor, Eleanor McLoughlin, on stage instead of me, performing a script instead of reading lines. She incarnates Aoife, the protagonist of Iron Annie, more vividly than in my wildest dreams.

The bands, False Slag – who formed especially for the tour – and The Dandelion Few, composed original music based on the book, and I’ve been humbled. That daydream has grown to a large-scale production touring throughout Ireland, with the support of the Arts Council’s touring funding scheme and Louth County Council.

I wrote Iron Annie in 2018, and when it came to me it was like a revelation. Having previously approached writing in a kind of top-down, planned-out way – without much success – I reversed the process and stepped into the unknown, writing without planning. It just seemed to work. I discovered, somewhere, the character of Aoife, and I found myself telling the story of her obsessive love affair with Annie, primarily set in a fictive underworld in Dundalk. It’s a world of flawed characters, drug deals and unreliable narrators – with a depth of human connection in all its rawness, ugliness and beauty.

Prior to that, I had myself been living in Paris where I did a PhD at the Sorbonne in cultural anthropology. So far so incongruent, but if I were to compare Paris to Dundalk, it might surprise the reader to know that returning to my home town was like a breath of fresh air. Essentially the opposite of the traditional narrative of Irish person leaves small-town Ireland, finds liberty and fulfilment abroad. A sign of the times, maybe, but there’s also a lot to be said about being in a place unburdened by precedent, a place with a kind of punk-underdog DIY attitude. That’s the essence of what inspired me in writing Iron Annie.

The main challenge in adapting the story from a book to a stage show was how to tell a meaningful story without it feeling partial. Iron Annie, on the page, tells the story of Aoife, the first-person protagonist, and her obsessive love affair with Annie, via a story that takes the pair on a free-wheeling trip through the UK to offload 10kg of cocaine, with frequent jaunts down memory lane. Sarah Moss, writing in this publication, called it “a queer underworld Thelma and Louise with better jokes and just as much chance of a happy ending”.

A book is a very specific type of narrative experience, a very personal, intimate one that inhabits the limitations of its own form; an object made of pages glued together, usually printed in black and white. Limited, but expansive at the same time.

A stage show is communal in form. It requires the creative input of many people, from musicians to lighting designers, actors and directors, but limited by time and the demands on an audience’s attention – you must get the story told by the time the curtain falls. In adapting my novel to the stage, I was very conscious throughout – after I completed the script – that my job was essentially holding the space for others to bring their version of this universe to life on the stage.

To give a concrete example of what I mean, the reader will know that chuckling to yourself as you read a book is not the same as laughter in a room full of strangers. And because of the comic vein in the book, this reaction from the audience is crucial. So much so that the director, Peter Moreton, rehearsed with Eleanor to take her cues from audience reactions, whether that’s laughter or the silence that follows when an uncomfortable truth is spoken aloud.

In order to avoid it feeling like some kind of staged teaser for the book, I homed in on the story of Aoife coming to terms with her love for Annie, against the best advice of her friends and some of her own instincts. Because Aoife’s love for Annie is the kind of mess that a person gets into consciously.

It’s a process that had its challenges. Iron Annie is a novel driven by voice and character, with a story woven in such a way as to invite the reader into it. Part of this is the use of Dundalk vernacular. I’m biased, of course, but to me vernacular language is massively important as a kind of bank of memory. I don’t mean that in any archival sense, but in terms of it as something that conveys a flavour of what things were like here, as the passage of time left its sediment on place.

In the border region, I have come to understand the humour, too, as inseparable from the vernacular. After all, humour is first and foremost a survival mechanism. One which, like smuggling for example, becomes essential when forces from on high decide to plant a border through your daily life.

It was a pretty big ask to have Eleanor hone the Dundalk talk. As everyone knows, it’s the sexiest accent in the country, but perhaps not the easiest, with its unique combination of nasal flatness and back-of-the-mouth northern guttural tones and none of the lilt. But her incarnation of Aoife is honestly like watching her walk out of the book. I briefed the bands to take inspiration from the tone, not the content of the book, to provide emotional counterpoints to Aoife’s story, and I’ve been blown away.

The Iron Annie Cabaret will tour every part of Ireland in October and November of this year, with shows in Dublin, Belfast and Cork planned for March 2022, due to the difficulties of programming during Covid. With the support of my publishers, there is already talk of bringing it further afield, and I’m just excited as hell that so many people are going to get the chance to see it.

Tour dates and details

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