The enigma of Ireland, fatalist but optimist, flawed but unbreakable: Stones In His Pockets, at the Devonshire Park this week, is its history and humanity in microcosm.
In the 20 years since Marie Jones’ two-hander first captured attention, it has won awards and admiration, and it still has resonance and impact. As a theatrical exercise, and a vehicle for absolutely brilliant acting, the play is outstanding. And this production, directed by Lindsay Posner, is at least as good as the version, which this reviewer recalls watching – at the White Rock in Hastings, as it happens – in its very early touring days.
Is there a reservation? Well yes, two in fact. The social issue at Stones’ core – exploitation of a rural Irish community by an insensitive American film company – is now just a little less valid. Already in the 1990s, when Marie Jones scripted the play, Ireland was becoming a tiger economy, and relative prosperity now reaches even to Kerry’s far west of the country.
In fairness, there are other issues – some only touched on rather than explored – such as mental health, the nature of friendship, the veneer of celebrity, and this play’s sincerity and intelligence give us plenty to think on.
Secondly though, the brilliance of this pair of performers, portraying 15 roles of all ages, accents, characters and genders, becomes all but an end in itself. Almost like the ultimate drama school workshop.
Enough of the carping. The virtuoso performances of Owen Sharpe and Kevin Trainor are easily worth your ticket price alone. Their own characters are established within minutes: Sharpe’s Jake the world-weary, pithy and perceptive survivor, and Trainor’s Charlie a cheerfully hapless business failure who like a male Mother Courage, pings back up when you knock him down.
The dialogue is sharp, human and relentlessly funny, and we swiftly warm to Charlie and Jake. Sit in the stalls, and not upstairs, if you want to share the intimacy, for this is theatre for small spaces and not for expansive auditoriums. Peter McKintosh’s simple representational set of green clumps of pasture is nicely enhanced by Howard Harrison’s bright lighting plot and a mesmerising pattern of drifting clouds on a pure blue sky.
An Irish idyll? Not at 40 quid a day, which is all the local folk pick up as extras on the film set of these intruding, brash American moguls, who work only in cliches, and have no sensitivity or empathy for local needs. Sharpe and Trainor deftly switch parts, often with incredible speed, to become fellow villagers or film directors or even the star actress Caroline Giovanni – an exquisitely played Lena Lamont figure, although she improbably recognises the Seamus Heaney poetry which Jake reels off to her. Be prepared, by the way, for some occasional ripe language, but never gratuitous or out of context.
Act One drifts slightly, but very amiably, until an absolutely pivotal final moment of the first half which risks passing the audience by – but is crucial to the story. Spoiler approaching. One young and vulnerable villager, snubbed by Miss Giovanni for a well-meant approach in the pub, has committed suicide, filling his pockets with stones to weigh him down as he walks into the sea.
The second act, brisker and more compelling, sees the repercussions of this dreadful act. Poignancy replaces flippancy, and – to the moguls’ distress – the local folk insist on forsaking the film set for the funeral. The conflict has depth and passion, and we are left in no doubt which side we should be taking.
It’s an intriguing piece of theatre, flawed like its central characters but never dull, and performed with intensity and remarkable expertise.
Tickets cost £18-£23.50.
Concessions £1.50 off (Mon-Thur 7.45pm only).
Under 16s & Students £9.
Under 25s £10.
Groups 10+ receive 10% off (Mon-Thur 7.45pm only).
Friends Of The Devonshire Park Theatre 25% off (First 2 nights only).