A Handful of Stars (Theatre503)
Billy Roche's play features an outstanding central performance from Ciaran Owens
Set in a pool hall in deepest, darkest Wexford, Billy Roche's A Handful of Stars tells the story of the peacocking, aggressively defensive Jimmy Grady, unable to see where his life's leading, ready to embark on a self-destructive spiral the likes of which the community hasn't seen in a long time. It's an intimate, lopsided kind of number, not really saying a ton but allowing its lead actor to shine like the sun.
Ciaran Owens is outstanding as Jimmy, whose life rolls from one disaster to another, choosing to put on a brash front instead of addressing his problems and doing something to fix them. Owens is brilliantly nuanced, reminiscent of Jamie Parker in his ability to make something special of every single line ("Did I ever tell yeh about the time I caught the two of them kissin'?"). His monologues and one-on-one interactions are a joy - the way he can switch from false jollity to sheer devastation in seconds is really something special.
Brian Fenton's withdrawn, submissive Tony acts as an effective counterpart to Jimmy's wildness, unable to drag himself away, even when he's been viciously attacked by his friend and knows it's time to go. There's an intriguing homoerotic subtext between Jimmy and Tony too, and perhaps Jimmy is so destructive because he's never been able to admit the truth to himself? Is that why he can't maintain his relationship with Linda (an evocative Maureen O'Connell)? It's an interesting point to consider, and one brought out by strong direction from Paul Robinson.
There's also some nice work from Michael O'Hagan as landlord Paddy. Possibly intended as somewhat of a caricature, O'Hagan imbues Paddy with some nice touches, particularly in showing his restraint when dealing with sniping policeman Swan (Michael O'Connor). There's more to this old man than meets the eye, and it's a pity Roche's writing doesn't allow for any of that.
The same could be said for Keith Duffy's solid Stapler - it would have been nice to learn a little more about what's going on behind the eyes. With the focus so purely on Jimmy's torment, everyone else is shut out, a million stories left untold. Does Owens' performance trump that? Just about.