A Handful of Stars at Theatre503
The claustrophobic Theatre503 provides a suitably intimate atmosphere for Billy Roche’s A Handful of Stars, a deeply personal play about Jimmy Brady – an Irish Jim Stark if you will – struggling to conform to the expectations of adulthood.
As is ever the case with these stories, Jimmy, played with all the youthful aggression you’d hope for by Ciaran Owens, is the town troublemaker. Though a little rough around the edges, at his core he’s a decent young man, which is what makes his self-destructive behaviour so painful to watch. While the character trope “misunderstood thug with a heart of gold” might be immensely tired, Owens’ superb, convincing acting ensures that the play is as engaging as it could possibly be before its predictably bleak conclusion.
Owens is helped by an equally excellent supporting cast who all flitter in and out of the sole set: a small-town Irish pool hall. The boredom and bitchiness of small-town syndrome is examined with startling precision and believability, with each character moaning about the others with the candid humour and hypocritical condescension anyone who grew up in such a place will be all too familiar with. The inclusion of the biggest name in the cast, former Boyzone member Keith Duffy, might raise some eyebrows but surprisingly his turn as ageing boxer Stapler is a delight to watch. Most surprising is his ability to perform such a masculine role,after years of singing what can only be described as the least masculine music known to man.
The most prominent symbols of adulthood in the play are the old caretaker of the pool hall, who Jimmy delights in antagonising, and the members only section, which Jimmy and his awkward buddy Tony aren’t allowed to enter, and the audience aren’t allowed to ever see. By keeping it at such a distance, the sympathy for Jimmy is expertly heightened and any viewer will surely feel as frustrated as he does that this borderline mythical adulthood is for members only.
One thing the play lacks is an explanation for Jimmy’s behavioru, with a brief mention of father issues feeling like a bit of a cop out. Having said that, by not exploring a more specific motive the play becomes much more widely relatable to generation Y males, many of whom (for a plethora of reasons personal to them) appear to be struggling with a similar sense of arrested development and issues pertaining to lost masculinity. The banality of modern life is, possibly, another motive offered for Jimmy’s hollow and drunken rebelliousness, but again it’s not easy to comment with certainty.
Ultimately, and sadly, the narrative is painfully predictable; a doomed romance of Jimmy’s is always seen as exactly that, and his general fate is seen a mile off. The journey to that ending, though, is packed with such joyously witty charm and contrastingly disarming moments of vitriol that the play, for all its minor flaws, is a mesmerising portrait of the bipolarity of youth.
A Handful of Stars is at Theatre503 until 24th May 2014. For further information visit the theatre’s website here.