Back Stage London correspondent Mark Shenton charts the progress of a sleeper comedy hit from Northern Ireland that has taken the West End by storm and has now opened to raves on Broadway with its original Irish cast, after a sold out Toronto run.
The story of "Stones in His Pockets" encapsulates the hopes of the community theatre folk of "Waiting for Guffman," in which they dream that their town's anniversary historical pageant will go on to Broadway, writ large. Except, however, for three key things: first, that they come from Northern Ireland's Belfast, not Missouri's Blane; second, that this is an utterly professional rather than endearingly amateur endeavor, though its infected with a similar spirit of naive theatrical pleasure; and last but not least, that they are actually going to Broadway in the end, after all.
But who could have guessed, when this little production was first born in Belfast less than two years ago (though an earlier version of the show was done in 1996), that it would rapidly sweep into the West End—and after a limited run at its original theatre, prove so successful that it would move to a larger one and an unlimited run down the street? Or that its original cast of just two splendid actors—Conleth Hill and Sean Campion—would find themselves replaced in London, where the show continues to run now at the Duke of York's, and spirited to Toronto's Winter Garden en route to a Broadway opening at the Golden Theatre this past Sunday, April 1. The two previously unknown actors also went head-to-head for the same Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor, joining a line-up of nominees that included the considerably more established Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy, and Simon Russell Beale—and they surprised everyone, not least no doubt themselves, when Conleth actually took the award (which Sean had the honor of presenting to him backstage in Toronto; the play took the Best New Comedy Award, too).
Last month, I traveled to Toronto to catch this utterly endearing show once again and also to meet its cast after the show in the backstage Green Room. They were tired but happy after a performance that keeps them both center stage for over two hours, playing 15 roles between them, in this affectionate and affecting story by playwright Marie Jones of movie extras on an Irish film set, and earning a well-deserved standing ovation from a packed Canadian audience afterwards. It was intriguing, too, to see how marvelously this big-hearted but physically small piece of theatre—there's barely a set except for a row of discarded shoes against a sky backdrop—filled a large house, and had the audience hanging on to every word.
Purely for the Stage
"This is a play that gives theatre back to the actors," comments Conleth, the shorter, stockier of the two. "It just lets you get on with it, without a safety net, big costume changes, props, lights, music, or anything." Adds Sean, "It's so refreshing as an actor to come in and know there isn't anything there except acting, writing, and directing, and that's it, and to know that an audience will actually make that leap with you to take the journey with you. It's that gorgeous thing of offering an audience the potential to use their imaginations. They really have to. They don't realize how much work they're doing when they see the show, but that's the beauty of it."
Though a film deal is now inevitably (and ironically) in place to take this story of making movies back to the movies, Sean stresses that film is a very different animal: "The beauty of this is that its inherently theatrical, and couldn't work anywhere else as it is—it's purely for the stage and purely for the theatre." As Conleth goes on, "As far as audiences and critics are concerned, the play is the thing."
In London, film stars regularly beat a path to their dressing rooms. "We'd sound like a David Niven book if we started to name drop," quips Conleth, "but we've lived an actor's dream here. In less than a year, we've had two West End runs of the same play, and are now heading to Broadway. Maggie Smith took us to dinner; and Mel Brooks told us we were nearly as funny as him, which is high praise indeed!"
Not that it hasn't been well-earned. Conleth, who first appeared in a production of an earlier version of the play in 1996, recommended Sean, after subsequently working on another play with him, when a new production was being proposed three years later. "I was sent the script, and when I read it, I thought, 'Sweet Divine Jesus!," says Sean in his colorful Irish brogue. "How can you possibly do this with just two people? There's a cast of 15 characters, and at times there are three or four people in the one scene; it just seemed impossible! So, being a typical actor, I read it, I panicked, then called the director [Ian Mclhinney] and said, 'When do we start and how long do we have?' "
So, I chip in, when did you start and how long did you have? "May 1999 and we had three weeks of rehearsal," they chorus as one in reply. They have a habit of completing each other's thoughts and sentences throughout.
Conleth: "They wouldn't pay us overtime, because there was no money as it was the end of the season. So Ian would leave at five or six, because he had a life! And the two of us would work on until Sammy, the security guy, would throw us out..."
Sean: "...at midnight. Because we knew we only had three weeks, we knew it was gonna have to be intensive. But it worked in our favor, because we never left it for all that time, we stayed with it morning, noon, and night."
Conleth: "Then we had the first night at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast."
Sean: "We were hit by this standing ovation; it was actually frightening."
Conleth: "We thought they were coming for the stage…"
Sean: "…and basically it's been that way ever since."
No Rest for the Cheery
They've also had scarcely a day off since. After its initial Belfast run of three weeks, it transferred to Dublin for a fortnight, where it was seen by Nicholas Kent, artistic director of London's Tricycle Theatre, a fringe theatre that specializes in plays that appeal to its mainly black or Irish North London local community. He booked it immediately for a London run—after the Edinburgh Festival, to which they were already committed.
"He's been brilliant, so supportive," comments Conleth. Sean adds, "It was great for us, because it started to create a life for the play. Sometimes you have a break of three months while you wait for people to make up their minds." Both Edinburgh and London sold out. Dublin wanted them back, and so did the Tricycle. First, however, they were committed to star together in "Waiting for Godot," then Conleth had another job afterwards, so they returned to it in February 2000.
"We did five weeks in Dublin, then seven more at the Tricycle," says Conleth. It went straight to the West End's New Ambassadors from there, and then immediately transferred again to the Duke of York's. Between February and December 16, when they finally left it behind to their understudies, they had only one week off.
Conleth: "We never missed a show."
Sean: "This show operates on word of mouth, and I feel that if people pay that amount of money to see it, they should see the show they've heard of. It would be unfair not to be there."
Two weeks later, after finishing in London, they were on a plane to Toronto, and after four days to acclimatize, were performing it again. Sean had never previously been across the Atlantic. Neither has yet ever been to New York.
Sean: "What a way to see New York!"
Conleth: "I always said I'd love to go but wouldn't go unless I was asked; I wouldn't go looking. I've had to wait 20 years."
Sean: "By the time we get to Broadway, that'll be the completion of a journey we hadn't anticipated at the beginning. The only thing that remains after Broadway is that we hope to bring it back to Ireland, first to Dublin and then to finish in Belfast."
Conleth: "We may do bigger and better things after this, but nothing will ever be as special, I don't think!"