Award-winning comedy Stones In His Pockets, which tells the tale of a quiet Irish community turned upside down by the arrival of a massive Hollywood movie shoot, arrives in Sunderland next week.
We speak to director Ian McElhinney, who also stars in the critically acclaimed Game of Thrones:
Q: Stones In His Pockets has proved hugely enduring. Why do you think that is?
A: It’s magic! At the time, the idea of telling a whole story involving a large number of characters with just two actors seemed very novel.
I think it captivates the audience’s imagination because an awful lot is created with very little. And that’s what I think is the key to its appeal.
Once a show has generated that level of appeal and does well in the West End and on Broadway then the juggernaut is rolling, you know? And touch wood, please God, it keeps on rolling.
Q: Were you at all surprised by its initial success, or did you have an inkling that, oh, we may be onto something here?
A: We believed that we had something good and we certainly had hopes for it.
It began at the Traverse in Edinburgh as part of the festival which proved to be a very good showcase. It was an extraordinary phenomenon that the reviewers all liked it, or really liked it, and I remember thinking at the time “there’s real magic” in this.
Following these first shows in Edinburgh it was at the Tricycle in Kilburn and our material responded well there too; they brought it in and the reviewers were equally as excited about it.
Of course, the next thing we did was transfer to the West End and that was that. But, to be honest, when we started off we had an agenda, and that was to get it to the States, but off Broadway, if you know what I mean. We had hopes that it would travel but we never imagined it would take off in the way that it did.
That took us all by surprise, and for about three years it was just an upward journey, which was very exciting really.
Q: It must be a world away doing touring theatre, and then going back to go and work on something like ‘Game of Thrones’?
A: Yeah. I mean, I had to pinch myself on that one because I’ve been in this business for nearly forty years now and had only had the odd fan letter here and there. Since I have been playing Barristan Selmy in Game of Thrones, I find that I’m recognised much more no matter where I seem to go, and it takes a bit of getting used to.
People want pictures, “selfies” and autographs on a scale that I had just not been used to prior to this. I’m intrigued.
With something like Game of Thrones, even though the books are out there, are they worried about plot spoilers?
Are the scripts delivered to you under lock and key? It’s very interesting. I mean they’ve really tightened their ship in every regard since year one. It used to be that you get all ten scripts but now we only get the scripts that we are involved in. You have to piece together bits of the story that you haven’t seen.
Q: And what’s the actual filming experience like? It looks hot and very physical. It looks like you have to wear a lot of armour.
A: Yes. I mean, you say to somebody, “I’m off to Morocco to shoot for six weeks.” and they say, “lucky you.” In a sense you are very lucky to get the chance to spend six weeks in the Moroccan sun in the middle of the autumn but when you’re working the days are long, the armour is heavy and walking through sand is tiring.
It is a testing environment but it’s good to be part of something worthy. And it all conveys on screen because they have the money and the will to spend on production. When you look at a finished episode you think, “Well I know where the money’s gone. I can see it in the scale, the vision, the input and the integrity of how these things are put together.” You can’t help but be impressed by it.
Q: In terms of what the acting in Game of Thrones involves, it must be completely different to what the actors are trying to do in Stones In His Pockets. What does an actor have to have to be able to meet the sort of challenges involved in this particular script?
A: Conor Delaney and Stephen Jones play 15 characters between them in Stones In His Pockets and they have to be able to perceptively create different kinds of characters. In the blink of an eye you have to see another body shape, hear another voice, and become aware of a different person.
They have to be able to give you that flexibility, and some actors are very gifted that way. What we try to do is create that magic without props and without going off the stage but simply by transitioning around each other.
And then the other side, of course, is that although Stones is labelled as a comedy which is played with lightness, there is a pretty serious story in there. So whenever you get into the core of that, you’ve got to honour it and you’ve got to ask the actor, “Right, this is someone you can invest in, and I’ve got to see the extent to which this goes through you, the person.”
It’s an interesting challenge and it’s always going to be a good debate between myself and whoever else is in the room with me about who is most suited to each of these parts out of the people who we’ve seen. There’s always an element of gamble when you cast people in anything and you just trust you’ve got it right.
Q: So what’s it like then, coming back to Stones In His Pockets, a production that you set on its way? Do you see new things in it? Are you determined to change the way you do it, or is it more like returning to the source?
A: You know, it’s very interesting. I think I did it for too long the first time around, and I think it’s actually the hardest thing in the world to come back to a successful production with a new cast and try and recreate it. You are split between knowing what you already know, what already works and believing it works, while also trying to honour the fact that you’ve got fresh actors in the room with fresh ideas to accommo- date.
I actually came back to it after a gap of nearly ten years and found it very reinvigorating. I’m pretty confident that the way in which we do it works and we should cling to that.
l Stones in his Pockets is at Sunderland Empire on Tuesday. For tickets Tel. 0844 871 3022 or visit www.atgtickets.com/sunderland.