x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Setting the stage for Stones in His Pockets

The award-winning two-man show about Hollywood descending onto a small Irish town starts a run in Dubai on Monday.

Matthew Addis, left, and Nick Barclay performed Stones in His Pockets in Dubai in 2008.
Matthew Addis, left, and Nick Barclay performed Stones in His Pockets in Dubai in 2008.

In a fortunate occurrence of life imitating art, the story of Stones in His Pockets, the phenomenally successful play that will show in Dubai from Monday, has followed the same trajectory as that of its heroes: written by the Northern Irish actress and playwright Marie Jones, the comic two-hander started life in Belfast, where it showed at a selection of provincial theatres to only a small clutch of people.

All that changed in 1999 when, following some heavy rewriting, it moved to the Edinburgh Festival. It was an overnight success, and before long, the West End and Broadway came calling. Similarly, the play's two main protagonists, Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn, are small-town Irishmen, who, like most of the population, have signed on as extras for the big-budget film being made in their County Kerry hometown. Movies, though, are not all they're cracked up to be, and the pair soon find themselves taking on the system that, for so long, they admired.

"I think the reason it did so well," says John Payton, the show's director and co-producer, "was that yes, it was about an Irish community, but it's also about Hollywood descending on that community, which is kind of a familiar scenario for lots of movies. It's also about how someone who hasn't got much in their life can actually, as long as they've got the get-up-and-go, go and make something of themselves."

The play's pièce de résistance is its use of only two actors (Matt Addis and David Haydn in this production) to play all 15 roles. "It's such a simple concept," says Payton, "and the great thing is that it relies on the audience to use their imagination." Over the course of the play's two hours and 20 minutes, the actors switch from male to female, from glamorous Hollywood starlet to ageing Irish priest in a matter of seconds. There are no costumes, only shoes to represent the different characters.

"We don't go offstage and change costumes at any point," says Addis, who will reprise the role of Charlie (which he also played when the show came to Dubai's Centrepoint Theatre two years ago) "and the props we use are all mimed. I seem to remember from last time that the first five minutes are a bit of a haze as people try to work out what's going on, but then they adjust. People used to say to me afterwards: 'You forget you're just watching two actors.' If we're doing our jobs properly, it's a little piece of magic."

The spell clearly worked in London and New York. In 2001, the play won two Olivier awards, for Best New Comedy and Best Actor (for Conleth Hill), and was also nominated for three Tony awards. "It was on Broadway for a year," says Payton, "which is unheard of for a British comedy with only two actors. It's very tightly written, and the characters that she, Marie Jones, has created are so varied and loveable that the audience gets a lot out of it."

The play doesn't rely solely on humour, Payton says, and that is what makes the drama so affecting (one of the characters commits suicide, hence the play's title). "It's how the community responds to that event that is the core of the story," he says. "The comedy comes from the misconception by Hollywood that Ireland can be treated in such a simple way and that it's all quaint and green and Irish. It carefully parodies movies like Far and Away, but at the same time, because it's written by an Irish woman, it's saying that we're not all like this. But some of us are, so you can't escape the Irishness completely."

Just to hammer the point home, there is even, at one point, a Riverdance-type set. "In the original show, they just did a bit of an Irish jig, but we've been a bit more committed," says Addis. "I've put my ankles in places they've never been before." In stark contrast to the huge production costs of Hollywood films, the simplicity of Stones in His Pockets demonstrates, above all, the power of narrative, Addis says. "The story would be told if you had a cast of 15, but watching two actors conjure this whole world in front of you takes everyone back to the real essence of theatre, which is storytelling."

Stones in His Pockets will be at the Madinat Theatre from Monday until April 2. For tickets visit www.madinattheatre.com.