A few years ago, while they were researching a musical, the singer-songwriter Mick Flannery brought the writer Ursula Rani Sarma outside her comfort zone. This, as it happens, is where Rani Sarma most likes to be. In London, where the Clare-born playwright now lives, the Cork-born Flannery introduced her to a vast poker hall, where he would play and she could observe.
If you should write what you know, as the old adage goes, Flannery’s 2005 concept album Evening Train, his debut about small-town gamblers and strivers, is very well rooted. “He is a poker genius,” Rani Sarma says, having observed his skills first-hand. A game of bluffs and tells, poker requires working out characters within a strict economy of expression. That could also define Flannery’s music: weathered, Tom Waitsian dispatches from dens of iniquity.
Did Rani Sarma have any flair for the game? “Oh my God, no,” she says over coffee in surprise. “I have no poker face. Everything I’m thinking and feeling is written all over me. So I’m rubbish at it.” Still, Rani Sarma could appreciate “how much it is a kind of theatre in itself. All the bluffing, reading other people”.
That goes some way to explaining their collaboration on Evening Train, a musical adaptation of Flannery’s album, for which Rani Sarma, an accomplished writer for stage and screen, provides the book. She instigated the collaboration, seeking Flannery out 10 years ago, on the hunch that an artist as laconic as Flannery might appreciate someone with more tells.
Although Flannery first envisioned his album as a musical, neither of them are fans of the genre. “I can see the artistry involved in it,” Rani Sarma shrugs, “but I always found it really difficult to believe them once they burst into song.” She laughs: it’s an obvious stumbling block. “I’m quite a character-driven writer, an emotionally-driven writer, and I’ve never really been moved by musicals. But when I was listening to Evening Train, for some reason I started filling in the gaps between songs, mostly with characters. I think that’s a tribute to the way Mick has written them. He writes in a very honest, raw way. There is no pretentiousness there. His lyrical content has a real groundedness to it.”
Blue and green
To see whether their styles might complement each other, Rani Sarma recommended Flannery read two of her plays: Blue, a poetic early work, from 2000, about coming of age in small town Ireland; and The Magic Tree, a more complicated drama written eight years later. Flannery liked what he read. "In terms of darkness, I think we're on the same level," Rani Sarma laughs. "I think there are shades of blue and green in my work, a kind of a melancholy, which is also in Mick's work." Discussing possible projects in 2008 with her regular collaborator, the director Róisín McBrinn, Rani Sarma imagined Evening Train not so much as a musical, but "the kind of musical that I would love to go and see".
What would that be?
Flannery’s album, written from different character perspectives, suggests the main figures: two divided brothers, Frank and Luther, and a spirited, forlorn young woman, Grace, all dreaming of some form of escape from dusty realities and unpromising futures. Rani Sarma developed that into a love triangle saddled with questions of debt and fate, where parents are either haunting absences or demanding presences, and a younger generation stews in fragile promises and ruinous addiction. Here, impetuous souls go “straight over the top” (to use Luther’s gambling parlance) while personal bluffs get called. “It is in your hands,” the boys’ fading mother Kathleen tells Grace, who otherwise plays the hand that life has dealt her like a busted flush.
A labour of love – which is to say, uncommissioned and largely unsubsidised – the show came together piecemeal for Rani Sarma, Flannery and McBrinn over the better part of a decade, work-shopped at the National Theatre in London, then RADA and, most significantly, the Keegan Theatre in Washington DC, where under the eye of a musical director, “everything finally clicked”. As Rani Sarma developed the story, Flannery embellished his music, writing the new song Rising Tide in response to one of the writer’s finely turned dialogues, combining fear and freedom. “And it’s like that, how I feel inside/ Like a rising tide washing over me,/ So I can’t stand, I cannot breathe/ I cry and scream, no one hears me.”
Set in a remote West Cork headland, whose bar-room and poker den easily absorb Flannery's lyrical Americana, the musical is a kind of timeless tragedy about the consequence of standing still. Rani Sarma's career has been the exact opposite. Beginning in University College Cork, where she started writing and directing at the age of 19, she soon founded Djinn Theatre Company and swiftly won recognition in the UK. That led, by and by, to a commission from Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, 2009's The Dark Things, in which she shrugged off the more restrictive expectations of voice and place that an Irish writer might encounter. Now based just outside London, she has since moved into writing for film and TV: after writing for the Irish series Raw and Red Rock she is now developing literary adaptations for Channel 4 and the BBC while showrunning the "warm and fuzzy" Dawn French drama, Delicious, for Sky.
As Rani Sarma describes it, Evening Train, which found a producer in Everyman Theatre's Julie Kelleher and a new director in Annabelle Comyn (McBrinn, working on the Gate's The Snapper, eventually bowed out) is a kind of homecoming. "In a career which has in the last 10 years become sort of frenetic, I do less and less theatre projects," she tells me. "So this was a real passion project for me. It was something I held on to to feed that 19-year-old self of mine, who started writing and directing and producing. And I believe in the poetry of it, the lyricism of it, and the simplicity of it, to a certain extent."
Now living in a Brexit-addled England which, as an Irish-Indian woman and mother of three children, has become a more disconcerting place, Rani Sarma can imagine making another escape. “I think I’ll probably end life as I began,” she says, not unhappily, “feeling slightly misplaced. But I’ve always found comfort in the idea of remaining a bit nomadic.”
She continues: "Maybe one of the reasons I was so fond of Evening Train is that it reminds me of where I'm from. When you stand on Lahinch beach and look out, you know there is nothing between you and Canada. It does something to your mind. That longing for something else is always relevant. Feeling like you're a victim of circumstances, when actually you can be your own agent of change." She's not bluffing. Evening Train, her first musical, is a case in point; a journey home that still counts as a fresh departure.
Evening Train runs from Jun 13-23 at Everyman Theatre, Cork