New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 24 May, 2000

Six months ago Sean Campion and Conleth Hill made another fine double act on another set composed almost entirely of shoes. But that Waiting For Godot in 1999's Belfast Festival was a world away from Marie Jones's delightful bittersweet confection Stones In His Pockets, now deservedly entering the West End after successful outings in Ireland and at the Tricycle. Jones astutely fingers the industry of "Irishness" as she portrays a Hollywood location film shoot in Co. Kerry as seen through the eyes of a couple of locally recruited extras.

As Beckett's Didi and Gogo, Campion and Hill were occasionally joined on stage by others. Under Ian McElhinney's sharp direction here, they have the two and a quarter hours to themselves, metamorphosing at the drop of a hat from their main characters to a range of other figures, including the florid English director, the breathless P.A. and the coyly manipulative female lead. Yes, they mince ridiculously as women, but their characterisations, and Jones's writing, go deeper: in particular, Hill as "Caroline Giovanni" skilfully and economically depicts a woman who is as much of an exploitative performer off camera as on.

As Jake and Charlie mug their way through their scenes, looking suitably "dispossessed" as period peasants, we are gradually shown the various ways in which operations like this, rather than sustaining local communities either economically or spiritually, in fact chew up and spit out both them and their various hopes and dreams. Just as Jake's abortive seduction of the lead actress proves to be coldly calculating on her part, Charlie, fleeing from a ruined business in his native North Antrim, eventually has his illusions crushed about the dog-eared screenplay he carries in his trouser pocket. Worse, a lad from the village, rejected for extra work and thrown out of his own local, drowns himself (hence the play's title), shaking the entire community whilst the film folk uncaringly continue to shoot their big celebration sequence.

Jones is a dab hand at alternating her emotional registers: the comedy always comes along to relieve the sombreness after a few minutes, but never undermines or devalues it. And the episode in which Hill and Campion frenziedly recreate an entire village's-worth of jig-dancers (getting full mileage out of the traditional Irish dancers' facial expressions of startled bewilderment at what's going on beneath their waists) is such a joy that it is repeated as an encore. When Jake and Charlie start discussing the film they plan to make of the "real" off-camera story, too, we are left in no doubt as to what the opening shots will be in the really real, soon-to-be-shot film version of this wee honey of a show.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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