REVIEW: Stones in his Pockets: Barn Theatre, Cirencester, until August 22

Shaun Blaney and Gerard McCabe in Stones in his Pockets

Shaun Blaney and Gerard McCabe in Stones in his Pockets - Credit: Danny Kaan

This tragicomedy, involving a teenage suicide, surely shouldn’t be funny. Yet it is – funny, wise, clever; and brilliantly played by a cast of two, says Katie Jarvis


I mean, it’s odd. You read the blurb for the tragicomedy Stones in his Pockets – you read the title alone! – and you think: How in a Roman Catholic God’s name can this be any kind of funny?

This is And A Funeral without the weddings.

What’s more, the funeral is for Sean Harkin, a teenager living in a rural idyll (if you’re a visitor); a prison if you’re a teenager living there; (the most contented locals seem to be the cows (and they’ve no idea what’s in store for them)) in County Kerry, Ireland.

The stones?

Possibly a description of his drug-addled state of mind.

Definitely a description of what the farmer saw. He noticed Sean go into the sea – (strange thing to do?) –and then reappear. The teenager submerges a second time, never to be seen alive again. When Sean’s body is recovered, we find out why. He’d come out merely to do the job properly: to fill his pockets with the stones that would weigh him down as heavily as his rural home weighed on his spirits.

OK. I’ve got the tragi.

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But wherefore the laughs?

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Shaun Blaney and Gerard McCabe in Stones in his Pockets

Shaun Blaney and Gerard McCabe in Stones in his Pockets - Credit: Danny Kaan

The Barn Theatre: most people masked (though no one asks); seats pretty full, though parties divided by a Perspex screen.

(Actually, one of my few quibbles: why on God’s Earth, when the play begins at 7pm, are we still waiting for people taking their seats a good seven minutes later?)

But, oh my, it feels good to be here. Large swathes of the audience obviously feel the same. I’ve seen less well-dressed people making important public announcements, only some of whom were Boris Johnson.

Theatre is an Occasion.

A celebration.

As it always should have been. As it is now more than ever.

We’re here to see Stones in his Pockets, by Marie Jones: a play that began touring in small Belfast community halls and ended up on Broadway. It’s my first viewing; but, if the production at the Barn is anything to go by, I can see why it reached the heights.

And, if the cast of two has been, over the years, anything like the superlative Shaun Blaney and Gerard McCabe, I can see even why-er.

They sing; they dance; they cover, with panache, more lines than Waterloo Station.

And, as the cast of Stones, they’re required to play multiple parts – females such as the exasperated Ashley; the glamorous Caroline Giovanni. And – this is a particularly superb reincarnation – the aged Mickey. (I was utterly entranced when Jake/Shaun took off his floppy necktie and reinvented it as Mickey’s perfect walking stick.)

And then we, the audience, also played a dual role. There we were, thinking our job was merely to watch; suddenly, we discovered we were extras in the Hollywood movie swamping this Quiet Valley village.

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So.

A Hollywood film crew has swept into the community, where two of the extras – local Jake Quinn, and disenchanted failed video-store owner Charlie Conlon – are discussing the effect of having real film stars around the place. Both have ambition. Charlie has a film script he’s written, convinced – if only the director would read it – will make his fortune.

Jake, fair of face and sophisticated (as in, he’s actually been to America), wants to be a famous actor himself; even catches the attention of the movie’s star, Caroline Giovanni.

But will the multi-million dollar glamour rub off onto the disenchanted inhabitants – paid 50 a day, if they’re lucky – whose disenchanted youngsters are desperate to leave? And, when it does rub off, what will lie underneath? Will we see the bloom of a Kerry lily; or the dirt in which it grows?

The answer soon becomes clear.

Sean Harkin – that local teenager – finds himself in the pub with the glamorous, famous, much-feted Caroline. He sees in her a future for himself, if only she’d help; she sees a druggy, grubby local, so different from the fine people of Ireland she thinks her film is portraying.

And thus unfurls a tragedy.

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Shaun Blaney in Stones in his Pockets

Shaun Blaney in Stones in his Pockets - Credit: Danny Kaan

So whence the humour?

It’s everywhere. In the breaking of the theatrical illusion, as the two-man cast wanders through the audience, berating our abysmal performance as extras. 

It’s in the awakening of the characters’ realisation that Hollywood means riches for the already-rich; exploitation for those whose lives they not so much portray as possess.

It’s in the brilliance of the two men’s morphing into siren-females, elderly know-alls, strong-armed bouncers, pushed-around extras.

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It’s in the brilliance of the production: the Hollywood-ising, courtesy of the background screening of the epic movie trailer. (Genuinely hilarious.)

It’s in the sudden switch from laughter to horror as the scale of carnage by the Hollywood mob is revealed. Coupled – quite brilliantly – with the determined denial of that same mob. Everything is glamorous if they say that it is.

You can applaud at the end of a production such as this; but no amount of clapping can quite convey the admiration we feel for this magnificent cast. Was it really, really only two actors? Pretty damn hard to believe.

Stones in his Pockets, by Marie Jones, directed by Matthew McElhinney is at the Barn Theatre, Beeches Road, Cirencester GL7 1BN, until August 22; barntheatre.org.uk; 01285 648255.

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