Stones in his Pockets at Upstairs at The GatehouseCultureTheatre
Joseph Begley seems like the perfect man to star in Marie Jones’ Stones in his Pockets, a tale of two extras in an Irish film shoot. Having worked in various roles in the extras department for three series of HBO’s Game of Thrones, filming in and around Belfast, Begley is familiar with the issues raised in the script. He remembers 2011’s marquee disaster, an event which finds itself a counterpart in the play: “something like that goes wrong, and you’re sitting around for four hours, that’s £50,000.” Though very familiar with the scenes Jones depicts, his interpretation differs from the hopelessness of her characters’ aspirations against the “invasive” Anglo-American film companies: “Ireland is fantastic for film at the moment…I don’t agree with the play’s sentiment – there’s a central conflict between the positives and negatives of film. There’s the dream, and then there’s this need to be realistic. I say just go for it…the people I’ve met in the film industry have been so welcoming. If you work hard.”
Jones’ original script itself is certainly powerful and engaging throughout, with the exception of a rather hesitant opening, and a conclusion that unfortunately really fails to act as such in any way, as though the play were missing its final act. While branded overtly as a comedy, explicitly comic scenes are few and far between, and more often than not fail to achieve their desired effect. The real humour of the piece comes from the actors themselves, and their comically stylised portrayals of men from both extremes of society (passionate but clueless local extras and arrogant, foreign producers). If not a comedy, what then is the play’s real purpose? A brief commentary on the inherent self-contradictions of the industry? Certainly the way it demands only two actors to portray its dozen different characters seems to suggest so.
With the exception of a wide row of shoes extending across the back wall of the set (taking the metaphor particularly literally) below a huge old-fashioned film strip, the set, lighting and costume are minimal: the stage is adorned with two chairs and an equipment box, and one costume for each set of six characters (including two women). While this set-up allows for enormous flexibility in moving between scenes and characters, it is a slight shame that the same creativity that permeates the two-man concept does not extend to the other theatre arts. This ultimately means that a massive amount of pressure is placed upon the actors to deliver not just one fantastic performance, but six.
Though both Joe Begley (playing Charlie Conlon, among others) and Niall Bishop (playing Jake Quinn, among others) are Irish actors, often the wide foray of accents and ages required in their performance became visibly demanding: American accents were punctuated by Irish, Scottish accents by Northern English, and even Irish by a mixture. Despite this, both performances were consistent and commendable – Bishop in particular delivered incredibly powerfully in the piece’s climactic scenes, while his portrayal of Mickey, an 80-year-old veteran extra was perhaps the highlight of the play. Ultimately, with such an aesthetically complex and demanding piece, wherein theatre arts provide so little support that the level of energy, power and timing needed from both actors is astoundingly high, we can award Stone in his Pockets at least partial success.
Stones in his Pockets is on at Upstairs at The Gatehouse until 11th October 2014, for further information or to book visit here.