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Something out of nothing

When Marie Jones wrote Stones In His Pockets, the boom years in Ireland were still in full swing.

BELFAST CHILD: Northern Irish playwright Marie Jones made her name with Women On The Verge Of HRT.
BELFAST CHILD: Northern Irish playwright Marie Jones made her name with Women On The Verge Of HRT.

Tax breaks for artists had enabled a creative community to thrive as well as attracting Hollywood producers in search of picture-postcard locations. The result was a deluge of filmmaking in Ireland which saw crews colonise entire villages before leaving already deprived communities with nothing.

Rather than create a polemical tract, however, the Belfast-born writer of Women On The Verge Of HRT did what she does best, and penned a two-man comedy that made use of low-budget poor theatre techniques instead. This saw the actors not only play the central roles of would-be film extras Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn in a County Kerry backwater, but also the play's other 13 characters, including the film's director and the Hollywood starlet who befriends one of the men in search of some kind of authenticity.

"The state of Ireland at the time was full of interesting contradictions," Jones remembers, on the eve of Andy Arnold's new production of Stones In His Pockets, which heads up the Tron Theatre's summer season. "On the one hand, lots of films were being made because of these huge tax breaks, but at the same time there was a real disintegration of a rural culture which depended on the land. When that wasn't economically viable any more, a lot of young men moved away, and there were a lot of suicides at the time."

If such a backdrop provides the thematic crux of the play, it is the physically dexterous narrative style that sucker-punches audiences into believing it's some kind of blarney-filled piece of slapstick knockabout. Again, however, in the run-up to the play's first production in an early form by DubbelJoint theatre company at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, and a subsequent tour of community halls throughout 1996, its style too was dictated by outside forces.

"Economically, it was still difficult to do theatre with big casts," says Jones, "but that became part of the success of the play. People loved seeing the actors risk disaster by having to flip between characters. One minute they're playing a 75-year old man, then a couple of minutes later they're playing a child."

By the time the production reached Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre three years later as part of the new writing space's Festival Fringe programme, Stones In His Pockets was a fantastically slick mix of comedy and tragedy that captured the imaginations of audiences in a way that heralded even bigger success. Runs in Dublin and London's Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn followed the Traverse before it transferred to the West End. So successful did the production prove that its run was extended. In the end it played at the Duke of York's theatre for a whopping three years. Despite Jones's already successful commercial track record, for a new play with a cast who weren't household names to achieve such a feat was a phenomenon even Jones didn't expect.

"I thought the West End was all about having big productions with well-known actors," she says, "but here we were doing something with two actors [Conleth Hill and Sean Campion] who at that time weren't known at all."

When Hill and Campion took the play to Broadway, it was clear to Jones that "the play became the star".

This has often been the way for Jones, who, as an actress and writer, was one of the founders of the grass-roots-based Charabanc theatre company in the 1980s. While numerous plays were produced over the next few years, it was Women On The Verge Of HRT, originally produced the year before Stones In His Pockets, that tapped into mass consciousness.

That play followed the journey of two middle-aged women as they went on a pilgrimage to see singer Daniel O'Donnell, mixing comedy and pathos in such a way that allowed audiences into the play's world before making its point.

In this respect, Jones's work has a common touch few writers possess. Yet, for all their intelligent populism, there's an inherent political pulse to her plays. This can be found in her most recent work, Fly Me To The Moon, which appeared in an hour-long version as part of A Play, A Pie And A Pint's lunchtime theatre seasons at Oran Mor in Glasgow in 2010.

The play follows the travails of two hard-up community care visitors on the minimum wage who come into some money by way of a win on the horses. The elderly man who put the bet on, however, who is one of their regular charges, is unlikely to need it any more. It is how the women respond to the ethical and legal dilemmas surrounding their sudden windfall that makes for the gloriously edgy farce that follows in Jones's directorial debut.

"My mother was in a care home for two years," says Jones of Fly Me To The Moon, which is currently running at the Waterfront Studio in Belfast following a sell-out season at the city's Grand Opera House. "I could see these people who were on the minimum wage, which all came about because of the economic depression, and in the play they get further and further into the mire. Because I've never left Belfast and still live here, I see these sorts of people all the time. Here are two people who have absolutely no power whatsoever, but who suddenly find a way of taking control of their own lives."

Sadly, this isn't something that happens to Charlie and Jake in Stones In His Pockets, where the promise of a romantic fantasy life is quickly thwarted by harsh realities once the Hollywood circus leaves town. In hindsight, the play looks like an unintended metaphor for how the latest recession has left communities high and dry now the good times are over.

"It's got worse," Jones says of the economic climate in Ireland. "The films were good for the economy in terms of filling up hotels, but there's not the same tax breaks any more, so the hotels don't get filled. The film people tend to go to Prague or the Isle of Man. Everybody knows there are lots of empty hotels now."

The ongoing slump hasn't stopped the global success of Stones In His Pockets, however, which continues to be played around the world.

Oddly, this has seen it tour to both Iceland and Greece, both once thriving nations that have been blighted by the global financial collapse. Perhaps, as in Ireland, Scotland, London and Broadway, there's a sense of recognition there that's easy to latch on to. "Audiences love it," says Jones, still sounding surprised 16 years after the play was first staged. "There's something there about these two men chasing disaster, and I think there's a lot of truth in there about the chocolate-boxing of Ireland that translates in a way we never expected."

Stones In His Pockets is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from July 5-21. Visit www.tron.co.uk.

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