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Stones in His Pockets: From Belfast to Broadway

Mark Shenton talks to playwright Marie Jones about her hit Stones in His Pockets, the little Irish play that conquered the world. Last year's Best New Comedy is still going strong in the West End, with other productions now popping up everywhere.

By • West End


Conquering the World

Who would have guessed, when the current incarnation of {Stones in His Pockets::E01048796670} was first born in Belfast in April 1999, that less than three years later it would be firmly established as one of the West End's most popular shows, and an international phenomenon?

It has been translated into some 22 languages, from Finnish to French and even Icelandic. Yet another new cast, comprising Lloyd Hutchinson and Kieran Lagan, recently took over at the Duke of York's in London, while previous incumbents Sean Sloan and Louis Dempsey have just set out on a world tour that kicks off in Australia. Meanwhile, the American duo of Bronson Pinchot and Christopher Burns have also embarked on a US national tour after doing a season in the West End and a UK tour launches in Birmingham this August. And finally, original cast members Conleth Hill and Sean Campion (who last year took the show to Broadway) are back home in Ireland doing a farewell season of the play there.

Awards & Reunions

Before they set off on their separate journeys, all four of these casts gathered on the stage of the Duke of York's Theatre in January to celebrate its success, and author Marie Jones came over from Belfast to join them. It was an opportune moment to meet the feisty and fun Jones, and when I told her where the interview was for, she immediately exclaimed, "Didn't we win one of your awards last year? I've got it framed - it's on the wall! I'm not an internet-y person, so I didn't know about the website, but it was brilliant!"

She is referring to the award for Best Comedy awarded to it by this site's visitors and voters last year. The Whatsonstage.com Award is, of course, just one of numerous honours the play has taken, including the Evening Standard and Laurence Olivier Awards. Conleth Hill also took both the Olivier and Whatsonstage.com Awards for Best Actor, winning over the considerably better known Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy and Simon Russell Beale, as well as his own co-star Campion.

If the success of the show since then suggests that it has become a whole industry of its own, its author insists she has a life of her own. "I live in Belfast, so therefore I don't get wrapped up in everything that's going on. I have another life there, and I have written two other plays since then, and they've taken up all of my time and energy. And I've got two wee boys who never do their homework, so my whole life is completely different. But then suddenly people tell you it's here, it's there, it's everywhere! And when I walked in here today and saw all these casts, I was completely overwhelmed. It really brought it home to me, but thank God I'm protected - you wouldn't want to be carried away by your own publicity. At least I go back home to Belfast and they go, 'Stones in his What? I've never heard of it!'

Irish Teamwork

That may not be strictly true. Later, Jones admits that people sometimes accost her in the street there, complaining about the scarcity of tickets to her shows. It was, in fact, precisely her popularity as a writer in Belfast that led to {Stones in His Pockets::E01048796670} being rewritten after an earlier 1996 version hadn't worked.

"It just didn't gel, and I knew I needed to do more work on it. It was the wrong combination," she recalls, though it did put one key ingredient in place. Conleth Hill, for whom it was actually written, starred. "Then in 1999, the Lyric Theatre in Belfast wanted to do something at the end of the season, and asked me because I'd done a lot of work in Belfast and they knew I would get bums on seats because I'm popular there. So I sat down and really worked on it again, tightening it up, rewriting it, cutting it, changing it around." Her husband, Ian McElhinney, came on board as director, Hill leapt at the chance of doing it again, and suggested Sean Campion to co-star. "It was a great team," says Jones. "Conleth, Sean and Ian were so creative with it. I was seldom there, but because Ian is my husband, he would be very good at knowing what I meant, and could shortcut a lot of stuff."

Jones credits a lot of the realisation of the play to them. For example, she says that the exhilarating dance scene in the middle of the play was entirely their creation: "All I put on the page was two words, 'They dance', and then they created all that!" One of the difficulties of her work, she admits freely, is that "I probably think filmically and write theatrically. So I know where I want them to be, and will say, 'they're at the top of the mountain', but I don't know how they get there because my visual eye on stage isn't good! In a film you can just go to the top of the mountain, but in the theatre you have to create it. I leave that to the director and the actors, which gives them a lot of space to create, but it's because I'm so lazy!"

Breaking All the Rules

In the affectionate and affecting story that the play tells - about the shooting of a big Hollywood film in a small Irish village - just two actors between them take on all 15 of its characters. That was born partly of financial necessity - "If we had to have a cast of 15, as the play contains, it would never have seen the light of day" - but partly of habit. "We've been doing this style of thing for years. In Ireland, there is never enough money, so we double up and treble up, and the actors love it! Any actor would love to do this, because they basically love to show off. I'm an actress myself, so I love to do 25 different characters and accents!" By the same token, Stones is stripped back to its basics in terms of its physical setting, too: there is merely a row of shoes in front of a screen. "Because there was no money to do it any other way, we had to make the play very rich."

In the process, Jones points out that the show "seems to me to defy all the West End rules as I saw them, like the need to have big sets and big names. We had none of that, and yet here it is. It's one of those wee sneaky ones - every couple of years there's one like it, I think, where something just snuck in and people say, 'where did that come from?' Martin McDonagh with The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Conor McPherson with The Weir also both started off small and became big." They share, however, an Irish voice - and even if they are all physically small pieces of theatremaking, they also share a big heart.

As does it's wonderful author. Talking of her work since, Jones is undaunted by the legacy of Stones. "That's done and dusted, it's out there, and I don't need to match it in any shape or form." Instead, she writes what she is passionate about, and she tells me that her most recent show, a musical called Weddings Weeuns and Wakes, "is my passion now. I've done it for me: it's about language, and a rhythm in language. I love it because I want to preserve a lot of the old words, but I've said to producers over here, none of you are going to understand it!"


Stones in His Pockets continues to play at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre. To celebrate its global success, the show producers are currently offering Whatsonstage.com theatregoers £10 off top-price tickets – click here for further information.


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