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Stones in His Pockets
New Straits Times
By U-En Ng

For the optimistic, one thing remains when we lose all that we possess: Hope; a hope for a better tomorrow, and that life moves inexorably, if slowly, towards the better.

It's a pleasant fiction; for the appalling truth is that it doesn't get better, but worse - the only difference being that now we can't blame our misfortune on some external thing like fate or omnipotent but malevolent deity.

They tell us that our misfortune really isn't misfortune, but progress. We should be joyful that the old ghosts of the past have been banished by the clear light of reason. We should embrace the promises of a modern life, even if they mean we earn no more than 40 quid a day and live at the very precipice of society.

This is the central premise of Marie Jones' remarkable play Stones In His Pockets. The plot: a Hollywood film crew descends on a sleepy village in rural County Kerry and the locals get parts as extras.

As the cut-throat movie-making culture invades the countryside, old farmers find their cherished values thrown into confusion while the younger generation's dreams of making it big crash on the hard, jagged rocks of reality.

The play focuses on the reactions of two characters, Jake and Charlie, who have been "damaged" by modern life and are now running away from the times. Their tragic-comic reactions to these changes form the basis of the play's stark message.

Jake, a rural lad, went to the United States where he found the American Dream consisted of nothing more than waiting on tables. Charlie, a born loser, boarded up his video shop after being squeezed out by slick corporate rental chains.

"I got up one morning," Charlie says, "all my plans for the future in a heap of out-of-date movies. I couldn't start all over again… started all over again so many times I've lost count."

As the play progresses we watch the characters' desperate hopes fail, fail and fail again - but a twist awaits audiences at the end as what begins as a superficial protest against the Hollywood lot turns gradually into a deeper, more abiding rebellion.

Jones' script is sharp, witty and concise. Sadly, however, the more brilliant of her lines cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

The actors who play Jake and Charlie play all 11 other characters in the play - including women, children and the elderly.

"Why is that? Well, first, there's the economics of theatre, which is the same in Ireland as in any country," said Jones in a recent interview. "If you don't have financial support from the Government you have to get funding from other sources. One result is that you become more imaginative."

"Secondly, it's great for actors. It's a chance for them to flex their artistic muscles; and directors love it. It can be a bit of a nightmare because you have to create the environment out of nothing, but the imagination can be magnified by this simplicity."

And the imagination triumphs. Directed by Hugh Borthwick and played by West End actors Sean Sloan and Kieran Lagan, Jones' play evokes a poignant sympathy that makes Irish expression unique and inestimably valuable.

Relying on lightning-quick reflexes, accents, deft character acting and slapstick, the two actors very competently convey the play's biting, melancholy message - even if they keep it well hidden under a black cloak of comedy.

While the brogue might be a little thick for Malaysian, Stones In His Pockets is a remarkable play about remarkable changes everywhere - not just Ireland - and it has been brought here by two very remarkable actors.

Irish ambassador to Malaysia Daniel Mulhall praised the play's celebration of Irish culture and acknowledged his country's current presidency of the European Union.

"The European Union is not a single entity with a homogenous culture," he said at the gala performance of Stones In His Pockets last Wednesday.

"It is not just a political or economic organization - it provides a large cultural space for its member states," he said, adding that Irish culture, as exemplified in the play, added to the sum of broader European experience.