Edinburgh Festival: Two take on the world

THEATRE: Stones in His Pockets; Traverse Theatre, Venue 15 (0131-228 1404 to 22 Aug
Click to follow
"WHAT ARE we supposed to do?" whispers Charlie in desperation. Jake hisses back the answer. "Look at her, looking at us looking dispossessed!" The woman in question is untouchable Caroline Giovanni. She's febrile, nervous, very beautiful and trying to get back to her roots. She's also none too bright, spoilt and a huge, huge star, filming a million-dollar blockbuster somewhere in the heart of rural Ireland.

Almost a decade ago, Marie Jones wrote The Girls in the Big Picture, a wonderfully touching tale of country life in which the women were paired off, Oklahoma!-style, at basket teas. In her new comedy Stones in his Pockets, she turns her attention to men, but this time the picture, and its cast-list, is much bigger. In fact, the entire tiny town is agog, many of the inhabitants earning pounds 40 appearing as extras, not to mention trying to hoodwink the caterers by bringing their families onto the set for a slice of lemon meringue pie. The trick behind Jones's very funny new play is that everyone from Mickey, the conniving and only surviving extra from John Wayne's The Quiet Man, to Clem, the grand English director with more than a touch of Julie Walters about him, are all played by two actors.

The story revolves around a pair of hapless extras, Charlie and Jake, feckless loafers with dreams in various states of disrepair who get caught up in this collision between ersatz Ireland and the real thing. Part of the pleasure in Ian McElhinney's spare and speedy production is the hilarious ease with which Sea'n Campion and Conleth Hill leap between characters with no costume changes. Hill is both extraordinarily funny and peculiarly touching as Caroline, obsessively flicking non-existent flowing hair behind his ear, flirting with Jake in order to get her accent right. Campion, too, finds unexpected depths in characterisations which pop up out of thin air. Jones builds huge laughs by zipping back and forth between characters - and she fills the first act with sharply observed comedy as Charlie and Jake become enmeshed in the machinations of movie-making.

The second act, though, is more problematic. The tone deepens and darkens as a young relative of Jake commits suicide, but the flip, fast style cannot cope with the weight of ideas of self-worth and responsibility which sit too heavily on the script. The metaphor of the illusion of movies being taken up by a depressed local community is pushed too hard and the play suffers accordingly. Despite that, the sheer warmth and wit of Jones's writing saves the day. That and the splendid depth of Hill and Campion's exuberant performances. Hollywood should sign them up.

David Benedict