Monday, August 01, 2022

Iron Annie – fasten your seat belt for a messy roller coaster trip into gig theatre

If Dundalk was a bigger town, Aoife might be a gangster. Instead, she’s the pill-peddling drug dealer most people seek out in the area. When someone catches her eye in a pub on a trip our west to pick up some gear, all is not as it first appears when their pants are dropped. Annie is a shape-shifting chameleon from Belfast with a Scottish accent who takes beanie-hatted Aoife’s breath away in the bedroom, and threatens to undermine her normal sense of always being in control.

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I’m usually unimpressed with films or stories that trivialise or celebrate drug culture. In the end, that aspect of Aoife and Annie’s life is really quite ancillary to Iron Annie’s main tale of queer love, a tale that was particular suited to be performed on the evening of the Belfast Pride parade. In fact, it’s so secondary that the play ended – and this won’t spoil the plot for you – with me still wondering what happened to 50 kilos of coke that I thought was still in the back of Aoife’s car.

What might have been a one act one-handed performance has been transformed into a piece of ‘gig theatre’ by director Rhiann Jeffery, adding a trad punk/trash metal four-piece band False Slag (lead, acoustic, bass and drums/percussion) and singer/guitarist Annie June Callaghan to create the soundtrack to accompany Aoife’s monologues. The additional bodies on stage step into some of the shoes of people Aoife meets and describes, as well as providing sound effects for some of the more esoteric moments (like recreating the noise of a colony of walruses in the second act).

Georgia Cooney is an intimate performer, right from the start looking into the audience’s eyes rather than over their heads and really working the near-zero distance between stage and stalls in Belfast’s Accidental Theatre. After the interval, the front row of the audience are inches away from a feverish and unexpected demonstration of what can only be described as stair dancing, which will surely be an Olympic sport in 2024. Aside from dancing, Annie June Callaghan brings The Dandelion Few’s ballads to life, giving space for the more hectic storytelling to settle while her words and music bring some calm.

While some of the vignettes feel a bit strung together rather than naturally flowing, debut novelist and playwright Luke Cassidy definitely has an eye for the surreal and the comedic. The resolution of scene at the Armagh wake for Aoife’s Nan has the audience’s chests heaving up and down with laughter. Yet the waves of erotic pleasure described in an early sex scene made me wonder about the ‘male gaze’ while I waited for Aoife to recover. (To put in context, there’s more sex in three minutes than I’ve seen in 30+ years of theatregoing, and that includes sitting through all of The Jerry Springer Opera in London!)

Iron Annie is a thrilling professional stage debut for Cooney who is a superb storyteller. If theatre is judged to be successful by it lingering in your head while you make your way home afterwards, Iron Annie scores highly. The quality of the performances and the novel musical theatre mashup definitely make up for any cracks in the narrative.

Iron Annie will be heading home to Dundalk’s Spirit Store on Saturday 6 August before gracing the stage of the Wee Red Bar as part of Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wednesday 24 August.

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