Reviewed by Barbara Hughes-Moore
The latest UK tour of this critically-acclaimed tragicomic two-hander is written by Marie Jones and directed by Lindsay Posner, and centres on the culture clash between the locals of a small Irish village and a snooty Hollywood studio during the making of a blockbuster period piece. Kevin Trainor and Owen Sharpe star as Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn respectively, employed as extras in the film, as well as a host of other characters, who grow to question their romanticised notions of Hollywood when a tragedy hits too close to home.
In making ‘the stars the extras, and the extras the stars’, Stones in His Pockets feels like a mixture of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Bowfinger by way of Ballykissangel. The Hollywood studio in Stones in His Pockets is making a film just as (in)sensitive to (and stereotypical of) Irish culture as Leap Year or Darby O’Gill and the Little People – or, indeed, the infamously-accented Cruise/Kidman vehicle Far and Away, which seems to be the thinly-veiled target of this play’s scorn. The play thus dispels notions of a ‘Romanticised Ireland’ as neatly as it displays Hollywood’s cynical penchant for appropriating cultures for profit.
Two-handers live and die on the strength of their actors, and Sharpe and Trainor prove to be an excellent comedic pair indeed – the scenes of their slightly hapless extras attempting to emote, and even dance, are standout moments; I only wish there were more of them. Sharpe copes well with a multitude of accents and characters (including a lively old timer whose sole claim to fame is being the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man), but it’s Trainor who steals every scene he’s in (which is all of them).
He’s been a favourite of mine since he played a young version of John Hurt in Hellboy (2004), but this is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him on the stage. Trainor elegantly transitions between the myriad characters he inhabits, making each one distinct and memorable – including Hollywood ingénue Caroline Giovanni, posh toff producer Simon and Southern Gentleman Nick (the gregariously calculating director of the movie). He masterly evokes his talented predecessor (Game of Thrones’ Conleth Hill) in mannerisms and intonation whilst also making the role his own. It’s perhaps the most captivating stage performance I’ve seen since Rory Kinnear in National Theatre’s Hamlet – I can give no higher praise.
As for the play itself, it’s often funny, occasionally thoughtful, but rarely as poignant as its title might imply. The title itself refers to the tragic element within the play’s otherwise mostly comedic shenanigans: shunned by the stars and callously rejected by the producers, local teen Sean Harkin drowns himself by wading into the river with the eponymous stones in his pockets. His suicide casts a pall on the proceedings and seems to set up a clash not only of cultures but of values – and yet the tragedy of this traumatic event sits awkwardly alongside the quickfire comedy of its first act, largely because it is never given any kind of dramatic or meaningful weight. We never get to know Sean, either first hand or through the other characters, and even though news of his death is what closes act one and what should have driven the momentum in act two, when the curtain rises again the play seems more directionless than ever. We are never given the chance to mourn him, rendering his death a footnote when it should have been the focus.
A funny, endearing, if rather weightless story, Stones in His Pockets amusingly skewers Hollywood culture whilst gleefully revelling in its theatrical authenticity. Although it never lives up to the poignant promise of its striking title, it provides a wonderfully entertaining night out thanks to a manic sense of fun and a spectacular five-star turn by Kevin Trainor that’s worth the price of admission alone.
Produced by Rose Theatre Productions and Theatre Royal Bath Productions, Stones in His Pockets is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff through Saturday 15th June.