If ever an album was destined for the stage, it would be Mick Flannery’s ‘Evening Train’. Born out of a shelved musical project, the blueprints were already there; a concept album with distinct characters linked through a simple but compelling narrative thread, and the familiar tensions of coming-of-age in small town rural Ireland.
That’s not to suggest the album itself is a concession of any kind; as a standalone project it more than fulfills its purpose. A number of the tracks have won awards (being endorsed by one of Mick’s own musical idols Tom Waits) and Flannery has gone on to have a successful career as a singer-songwriter.
Nevertheless, when ‘Evening Train’ premiers at Cork’s The Everyman Theatre it feels like a musical idea realized in it’s fullest form. With playwright Ursula Rani Sarma adapting the album for the stage, it proves to be an emotional and memorable night at the theatre.
The musical opens, surprisingly, with a solo rendition of How High from Flannery himself, a track released over a decade after he debuted with ‘Evening Train’. Lamenting the monotony of life spent wasted in an insular home town, dreaming of running wild in New York City, it succinctly sets the scene for much of the turmoil and conflict to follow. While Flannery’s rendition is a gentle ballad, it takes on new meaning for each of the characters as the story unfolds, and the deeply moving final reprise that closes the show is perhaps the most powerful moment of the night.
The plot centres around Grace, a strong and spirited young woman determined to leave her hometown, her uncaring father, and his dodgy business dealings behind, and her two childhood friends, brothers Luther and Frank. Luther promises to save enough to whisk Grace away to America, though being too much like his own father, he gambles away any small amount he manages to scrape together from his odd (unfinished) jobs. Frank shoulders the responsibility for them both, covering Luther’s debts and caring for their sick mother, but with a building frustration that for the first time tempts him to consider turning his back on it all.
There are moments of real hopelessness as we explore themes of class, gender, addiction, dysfunctional family relationships, coming-of-age, and how they intersect within the lives of our protagonists. “Happiness is a modern preoccupation” Grace’s father scolds, and this is an old town. In saying that, the witty dialogue elicits much laughter throughout the night, never feeling forced or out of place, and it’s a testament to the strength of the ensemble that they so gracefully balance tender moments of vulnerability with light-hearted moments of jovial (distinctly Irish) banter.
The music spans most of the ‘Evening Train’ album, along with some impressively fitting cuts from Flannery’s discography and the addition of a newly penned track, Rising Tide, that Flannery made in response to a particularly moving piece of dialogue. Kate Stanley Brennan’s contemporary soprano is perfect for the bright and optimistic Grace, while the boyish charm of Ger Kelly’s vocal feels particularly fitting for Frank.
The accomplished live band – featuring Flannery – remain on stage for the entire show, loosely doubling as extras given the majority of the musical takes place in a bar; a bar with a band whom the actors might sit with, or smile at, or rest a beer beside.
Mick Flannery himself spends most of the show facing away from both us and the cast, sitting at a piano and letting the music speak for itself. The set isn’t overly decorative either, though a second story mirror doubling as a window to the back room poker dealings proves to be a particularly striking image during some pivotal scenes in the latter half.
It’s difficult to imagine an opening night running much smoother than this. As the ensemble close out their final song the audience rush to their feet, and while Flannery and his fellow musicians don’t join the cast centre stage for curtain call, the audience make their appreciation heard even after the lights go down and they quietly exit the stage.
More than a decade after the inception of ‘Evening Train’, and after years of development, this triumphant homecoming was worth the wait.
‘Evening Train’ will run nightly until Sunday 23rd June, 7.30pm. Tickets €25, concession €30, students €25, are on sale now from everymancork.com or from the Box Office.