The multi-award winning play about a blockbuster film set in Ireland enraptured audiences when it premiered in 1996, and now it’s back on tour. Nick Smurthwaite talks to the author Marie Jones and new director Lindsay Posner
One of the most enduring theatre successes of the 1990s, Stones in His Pockets returns to UK stages next week after a 20-year absence.
Marie Jones’ Olivier award-winning 1996 comedy is about what happens when small-town Irishmen Charlie and Jake are hired as extras on a big-budget US movie that invades their quiet County Kerry backwater.
Despite its then unknown actors – Conleth Hill and Sean Campion – and a shoestring budget, the play beguiled audiences in Belfast and Edinburgh before moving to London in 1999, first to the Tricycle Theatre (now Kiln) in Kilburn and from there to the Duke of York’s in the West End, where it ran for three years. Its admirers included a steady stream of big-name film stars, from Dustin Hoffman to Angelina Jolie.
A six-month Broadway run, with the same two actors sharing 15 characters between them, was followed by a US tour, and worldwide productions, most recently in Finland. It was nominated for three Tony awards, having already won two Olivier awards (best new play and best actor), and an Evening Standard award for best comedy.
So what was it about this modest two-hander that caught the imagination of the critics and audiences alike? “It’s pure theatre,” says Lindsay Posner, who directed the show to great acclaim in Princeton, New Jersey, last year and is now directing an eight-week UK tour. “Your experience of the play relies entirely on the writing and the two performers. There is virtually no set or props, just the two actors playing multiple characters without any costume changes.”
Jones, who was originally an actor – she played Daniel Day-Lewis’ mother in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father – was more surprised than anyone to find herself an internationally known award-winning playwright.
The work evolved out of a radio documentary Jones wrote about her husband Ian McElhinney’s experience of working on the 1992 film The Playboys, in which the US film star Robin Wright, who starred in The Princess Bride and the US remake of House of Cards, was strangely cast as an Irish pig farmer.
Jones says: “I had no idea it would be a big hit. But with brilliant direction and fantastic actors and no set, there were no limitations. People seemed to assume I got up one morning and decided to write a hit play, but it was the 26th play I’d written. Somebody told me on live radio I’d captured the zeitgeist, and I had no idea what that meant. I’d never even heard the word before. I had to bluff my way out of it.”
The original productions of Stones in His Pockets were directed by McElhinney for the Belfast-based Dubbeljoint Theatre Company of which the couple were founder members. Jones recalls: “The first time we produced Stones in 1996, it didn’t work at all, so I did some more polishing and Ian said he wanted to have another go at it, with the same actor, Conleth Hill, who was a friend of ours, and the equally brilliant Sean Campion.
“It went down a storm in Belfast, then Edinburgh, then London. We never had a bad review. Sean and Conleth used to phone from London and say: ‘You’ll never guess who came to see the show last night – Charles and Camilla’ and I’d be sitting at home in Belfast with the washing machine droning in the background.”
Ironically, given what a box office bonanza it was to become, the original reason Jones and McElhinney had two actors playing 15 roles was one of economy. “We were skint,” she says. “We hadn’t a bob to put it on at the Lyric Belfast, all we could afford in the way of a set was a line of old shoes.”
Finding the right actors to play Jake and Charlie is key to the success of any production of the play, and director Posner feels sure he has hit the jackpot with Kevin Trainor and Owen Sharpe.
He says: “It needs to be played by authentic Irish actors with a cultural understanding of the baggage these characters carry, as well as an insight into rural and urban culture in Ireland. You also need actors with funny bones who can switch from character to character while keeping it truthful at the same time. It is a comedy but there is also a dark underbelly that’s very moving.”
Given that it is now more than 20 years old, has the play needed any updating? Posner says: “I worked on the script in detail with Marie last year in America, and we’re doing the same draft for this year’s UK tour. It doesn’t feel dated at all because the themes of aspiration and low esteem and exploitation of one culture by another are as relevant and timeless now as they were 20 years ago.”
While its over-arching theme is one of cultural colonialism and careless exploitation, Jones says she was more interested in the dilemma of her two protagonists. “For me it is about people who have no voice, people who have no power. They see something unjust and they find a way of controlling their destiny.”
Stones in His Pockets opens at the Rose, Kingston, on February 28 then tours until the end of April
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