by Laura Ferguson
Stones in His Pockets is about Jake and Charlie, two extras on a film set located in Kerry, Ireland. The other characters include the film crew, film star, other extras and townsfolk. Actors, Alexander Sparrow and Patrick McTague are tested by at least three different accents, the colloquial Irish lilt of Kerry, the harsher, more English-sounding Irish from Dublin and then American. Sparrow goes a step further to include a Glasweigan Scottish and a hilarious American-trying-to-do-Irish.
The set is bathed in a lush green light, reminiscent of the stereotypical Ireland so often depicted in Hollywood films. Piejus’ lighting design becoming my first glimpse what this show is all about: a commentary of how Hollywood distorts the environments it wishes to capture. The plot revolves around the differences between Hollywood and real-life. Jake and Charlie often commenting on how they would never be as passive as what the script says in real life. They would do something, or at least say something. This assertiveness is a sentiment we see prominently in one of McTague’s characters, Sean. Sean is a teenager suffering an existential crisis. He wants to escape his dull life in Kerry to become famous in America, but lacks any means to do so, his yearning leading to drug-fuelled escapism.
McTague’s portrayal of this character is superb. He is at once defeated and defiant, fighting against the townsfolk’s expectations of him, trying to reclaim his individuality and humanity when it becomes rather obvious that the Hollywoodians only consider him as one thing. Faceless and nameless, he is nothing, only a drug addict.
Sean’s struggle in real life translates into the extras experience on the film set. Nameless anybodies ogling, digging and jigging to the beat of the assistant director’s drum. The patronising, sing-songy way the AD’s, McTague’s Aisling and Sparrow’s Simon, talk to the crew is reminiscent of a kids show. As if the extras can only comprehend the most basic instructions. Aisling and Simon’s jaded, barely-contained frustration makes me laugh, their fake smiles and tight eyes belying their true moods underneath the positive exterior. I sit grinning as Aisling and Simon change drastically when dealing with the film star, Caroline Giovanni or the director, Clem Curtis. Their disdain quickly metamorphosing into ingratiating acquiescence. The fakeness shines through like a spotlight, and the film crew become a metaphor for Hollywood, nothing is real, it is only used to please and appease.
McTague and Sparrow do wondrous work here together with director Piejus to keep track of all the vocal nuances their characters have. Contempt used for a particular character has to be whipped round to sarcasm for another, switching again to fluttering uncertainty for a third. It’s incredible to watch and both McTague and Sparrow do a marvellous job maintaining the sense of each character while Piejus’ stage blocking helps keep track of where everyone is. These techniques combine, allowing the stage to appear as if it is full, despite only having two people upon it. I can see the vestigial spirits of the other characters remain as McTague and Sparrow transform into other people. The ghost of Charlie looks on sardonically beside Jake while Sparrow becomes an elucidating Simon. I can see McTague’s Aisling look down her nose while the actor becomes Mickey, an elderly extra.
The physicality of the characters absolutely deserves a resounding congratulations. McTague and Sparrow each making their characters differentiated from each other with mannerisms and vocal quirks. A slumping gait for Sparrow’s local youth, Fin; The back-bent, cackle of Mickey for McTague. These touches are brilliant and help the story flow with ease and clarity. I would like to specially mention Sparrow’s portrayal of the Scottish security man, Jock Campbell. The Glasweigan accent was fantastic and the way Sparrow distends his body to magically appear larger by height and girth was so delightfully surprising. I couldn’t help but erupt into giggles whenever Jock came into being.
Marie Jones’ script is witty and subtle, particularly with the main characters, Jake and Charlie. The more down-to-earth portrayal of these two highlights Jones’ writing. The less bombastic depiction showing Jones’ underlying rhetoric of the dangers of Hollywood, that real-life feels nondescript and fades into the background against the hyper-realised versions of life we find in the movies. Just like how extras do. The peril in believing the decadence of the silver screen can seem as if it is being stolen from the lining of life’s clouds. The culmination of this message is tied to the fate of McTague’s Sean. The troubled teen seeking solace in a way which gives the show it’s melancholically poignant title.
The final scenes bring the meta aspect of life imitating art imitating life in order to imitate art all over again, to the forefront. I laugh with genuine and heartfelt amusement as Jake and Charlie discuss turning the story of their time as extras and the drama behind it into a film of their own. Did I just watch their dream be realised? By watching this play, have I helped continue Jake and Charlie’s hard-won optimism and happiness? Or is this a huge deus ex machina prank, so favoured by Hollywood, tricking me into thinking everything will turn out alright? My thoughts tumble into and onto themselves like a blackhole, like stones in my pockets weighing down and pulling me further and further into a meta-phoric mire. I absolutely love it.
Stones In His Pockets is refreshing and fun. It’s an experimental theatrical experience that makes you question your questions. Director, Tanya Piejus, cast her passion project brilliantly, McTague and Sparrow executing the dual roles with excellence. Stones In His Pockets challenged my view of what theatre could achieve and created a bevy of enlightening discourse afterward. It takes serious stones to execute a play like this, luckily the cast and crew’s pockets were deep and thoughtful enough to have made such a weight seem effortless.
Stones In His Pockets is playing at Gryphon Theatre until Saturday the 14th of October. You can find tickets here.