Melissa Blease reviews Marie Jones’s Olivier Award-winning Stones In His Pockets, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 16 March

Two actors, 15 characters, and a storyline with as many twists, turns and diversions as a B-road off Kerry’s Skellig Ring: to carry off this level of theatrical multi-tasking surely can’t be an easy task. 

In this neat, sweet revival of Marie Jones’ super-smart tragicomedy, however – originally written for Dublin’s DubbleJoint Theatre Company in 1996 – Owen Sharpe and Kevin Trainor accomplish the task in hand admirably… but whether or not the production overall maintains the attention-grabbing elements that the play originally earned a big reputation for as it moved from festival fringe territory to award-winning four-year West End residency (and Broadway transfer) is not so clear.

In the 20+ years since audiences were first confronted by ominous themes here cleverly hidden behind a slick veneer of intelligent humour (suicide; drug addiction; the exploitative nature of the Hollywood film industry; chagrin… oh, and the cow’s raison d’etre), such motifs have become almost too commonplace in contemporary drama… to the point where a drama has to be very, very sharp indeed to lift it out of over-familiar territory.

Set in a tiny rural town in County Kerry that’s been temporarily taken over by a Hollywood film crew and featuring a set that pays cheerful homage to the location, the drama largely revolves around two main characters: affable, optimistic, wannabe film writer Charlie (Trainor) and his fatalistic, pensive friend Jake (Sharpe), who has recently returned from a disappointing sojourn in New York. Charlie and Jake are working as extras on the Hollywood film, which we can safely assume is more Leap Year than The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

Initially, the town’s residents are excited by the stardust that’s blown in on the wings of several private jets; there’s a glamorous film star in the pub, and a catering van in the field, and the extras are being paid £40 a day for wearing a cloth cap and wellington boots and looking forlorn on demand. But when local troubled teenager Sean Harkin is banned from the set and forbidden from attempting to mingle with the stars, he stuffs his pockets with stones and drowns himself. As cultures clash, hackles rise and schedules are threatened, one big question hangs in the air: who is to blame for Sean’s tragic death? 

From ambitious screen siren to threatening security men by way of status-hungry female production assistant, bewildered English film director and stalwart ancient villager, Sharpe and Trainor introduce us to everybody involved in the unfolding drama with energy, pathos and humour as applicable. It’s a fascinating story, for sure. But all too often, the overall atmosphere veers a little bit too closely to the play’s fringe roots than a main house, mainstream production.

Were we to have it presented to us with a fresh, dynamic spin – as a series of thoughtful, observational sketches on the themes and topics, for example, raised with a whole cast taking on the whole characters – Stones in his Pockets could be prescient, vital and current rather than the gently nostalgic, easygoing satire that it is today.

Main image: Owen Sharpe and Kevin Trainor in Stones In His Pockets. Credit: Nobby Clark