How a comedy ended up as courtroom drama

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Stones in His Pockets, one of the most successful and original stage plays of recent years, was at the centre of a bitter legal dispute in the High Court yesterday over its rightful authorship.

Stones in His Pockets, one of the most successful and original stage plays of recent years, was at the centre of a bitter legal dispute in the High Court yesterday over its rightful authorship.

Marie Jones's Olivier award-winning play, which is on the verge of being turned into a film after a four-year run on the West End stage, earned her widespread critical acclaim as its author.

It has been translated into 16 languages and, by the end of the year will have been shown in more than 20 countries.

But the degree to which Ms Jones collaborated in its writing with her former creative partner is now the subject of a five-day court hearing.

Mr Justice Park must decide whether the play is the sole work of Ms Jones, or whether Pam Brighton, a Belfast-based theatre director should be credited as its joint author.

Stones, a biting and - at times - savage comedy, charts the adventures of two layabouts Charlie and Jake working as extras on a Hollywood blockbuster shot on location in the heart of rural Ireland.

All 15 parts - from that of the spoilt American superstar Caroline Giovanni to the pretentious film crew and guileless locals - are performed by the two men.

The play chronicles the unravelling of a community's dream and the resulting suicide of one of the extras - the chosen means of death is drowning with stones in his pockets.

Yesterday, the court heard how the two women writers have known each another for more than 20 years. After meeting in 1983 through their work in the theatre, they went on to become two of the founders of the Dubbeljoint theatre company in 1991 - the name is a combination of Dublin and Belfast.

The judge was told yesterday that Ms Brighton was left feeling "depressed" and "bitter" when Ms Jones failed to acknowledge what she says is her contribution to Stones.

She claims she is the joint author and owner of copyright in an earlier version of the play, first produced by Dubbeljoint as part of the West Belfast Festival in 1996.

A subsequent version of the play, written by Ms Jones, which opened at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 1999 reproduced a "substantial" part of the 1996 script, Ms Brighton claims. She is seeking an injunction that would credit her as a joint author of the play, and is also claiming damages for alleged infringement of copyright.

The 1999 version of Stones moved from the Lyric to rave reviews on the Edinburgh and London fringe, before transferring to the West End in May 2000. The success has turned Ms Jones into a stage-writing star.

Ms Brighton, who started her directing career in 1969, conceded that Ms Jones was "an extremely good writer" whose reputation as an author was already well established at the time Dubbeljoint was founded.

In the early days of the theatre company, someone described her and Ms Jones as "joined at the hip creatively", she told the court.

"During that period, Marie and I were incredibly close creatively. I have never had such a close relationship with a writer as I had with Marie Jones," she said.

But their creative partnership had already turned sour when Stones debuted at the Lyric.

Ms Brighton told the court she recalled being told the play was to be staged and was "so depressed" about what had happened to their formerly close relationship.

By the time the production had moved to the West End, Ms Jones's failure to give Ms Brighton credit for her work had really started to rankle, the court was told yesterday.

"I was incredibly hurt - people were constantly phoning me up saying: 'I read an interview with Marie and she never mentioned you'," Ms Brighton said.

"I was very upset. by then. This had been a very important relationship to me. I felt there had been a real attempt to rewrite history."

She added: "I was depressed and I also felt quite bitter that I had made such a big contribution to Stones that had not been acknowledged."

She agreed with Andrew Sutcliffe QC, representing Ms Jones, that it was the first time she had claimed to have written or to have been joint author of a play.

"The reason for that is that I do not think I have ever contributed as much to a script as I did to this one," Ms Brighton said.

Mr Justice Park said that he was "pleased" to hear the play was still running and announced his intention to see it, promising to find out "if I can go next week".

Provoking laughter in the courtroom, Keith Garnett QC, representing Ms Brighton, joked that if the judge did see the play "one or other of the party's would benefit from your lordship's visit".

The play ends its West End run on 1 May although the production will continue to tour in the UK and worldwide.

Among those who have already watched the multi-million pound grossing comedy are the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles, Cherie Blair, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks and Madonna.

A film version, starring the Perrier award-winning comic Dylan Moran and Conleth Hill, who starred in the play when it launched in the West End, goes into production in August.

Ms Jones has won a host of theatrical prizes for Stones including an Olivier award for best comedy and a special achievements award from the Outer Critics Circle in New York, while the director, Ian McElhinney, has been nominated for a Tony.

In Northern Ireland, her outstanding contribution to cultural life was recognised by a special award from Belfast City Council.

The play has just finished its second tour in the US, and is touring the United Kingdom for a second time.

A tour of the Middle East, taking in Kuwait and Bahrain, is also planned for some time in the future.