By David Hennessy
When Billy Roche’s first play A Handful of Stars premiered at The Bush Theatre in 1988, the cast included Liam Cunningham, Aidan Gillen, Dervla Kirwan and Gary Lydon who have all gone on to become big names since.
Now 26 years later, the first of Roche’s Wexford trilogy is playing in the West End with a cast that includes Keith Duffy as aging boxer Stapler and the playwright feels other cast members could go on to be just as familiar names as their predecessors.
“He (director Paul Robinson) was watching me in the first reading to see how I was responding to all the various actors who came in the door. I’m very pleased with them and I think there’s some young stars in the making in there.”
Set in a dark and dangerous pool room, A Handful of Stars centres around rebel Jimmy Brady and the small town pressures that he is battling with. While Gary Lydon played Jimmy Brady in its original production, Ciaran Owens is currently getting rave reviews for his portrayal of the anti-hero.
“We discovered Aidan Gillen, Gary Lydon and Dervla Kirwan on the same day. Dervla Kirwan was only 16 years of age and still had to do her leaving I think, she had to be chaperoned to London to play the part but the minute we saw her, we knew she was a major, major talent, and the other two as well. The three of them have gone on, Liam Cunningham came in to play Stapler, one of his first major stage roles, I suspect, so a wonderful, wonderful troupe.”
All three of Billy’s famous trilogy, A Handful of Stars, Poor Beast in the Rain and Belfry, premiered at Bush Theatre: “My memory was of getting off the train at Paddington and heading down the Goldhawk Road to the Bush was just a wonderful experience in those days, and the smell of Paddington to me, as grimy as it is, is still the smell of hope and I got that smell again because I travel by boat and train when I go there. I get off at Paddington and there it is, that grimy smell of hope, I love it. Most people run a mile from it.
“There is always the worry, would it survive the long sleep but we (myself, cast, director) read it and talked about it and I stayed for the first week of rehearsals and then I bailed out and let them at it, came back to it at the end just before the off but it’s a wonderful production.
“He’s a lovely director, Paul Robinson, he really got it. He and his assistant director came to Wexford and saw the back streets and the alleyways and the snooker halls. There is a little gem of a snooker hall in Enniscorthy which nobody knows about, it’s just lying there enchanted and that’s the prototype they use as the set. It has the whole shebang, back room for the so called elite, a wonderful little gem left there like an enchanted forest so that’s the set they use in their very beautiful design.”
A Handful of Stars shows a pool hall’s violent world and the stakes are always so high because the stories and characters are self-contained in the small town setting. Written before young people were taking off for Australia or Ryanair provided cheap getaways, Billy Roche’s characters, although they may have taken one, never had a way out.
But the playwright says the world has not changed so much: “I always say the fundamental things will still apply and always will apply: Love, death, family, the search for home. These are the things that have interested playwrights and writers since the Greeks and we can dress our emotions in all kinds of fancy dress and try to pretend that we don’t care about things that we used to care about, but I don’t believe that’s true.
“I think people are still hurt by infidelity, people are still hurt by death and if a boy gets dumped by a girl, is it any less painful for him than it was for me when I was 17? I don’t think so. They’re the fundamental things of life that we’re forced to deal with and my advice to the actors when we do it is: Small things are big things in a small place and people die for small things.
“It was interesting to see the play with new eyes and while in some ways, nothing happens, nevertheless everything happens. There’s a debate between Stapler and Conway at some stage which is a debate of ideology. It’s very simple, small town, illiterate philosophy but it’s philosophy nonetheless. One is on the side of the status quo and the other is not. Stapler says: ‘If a young fella takes a good look around him, what does he see? He sees big shots grabbing and taking all before them. But a young fella takes a few bob out of a poor box and they’re all down on top of him like a tonne of bricks’. It’s a little microcosm of what actually happens, isn’t it? Conway responds with typical right wing gesture: ‘You’re looking for Jimmy Brady, what are you gonna do when you catch him? What are you going to say to him?’ So who’s right and who’s wrong remains to be seen, somewhere in the middle is the civilised answer, I suppose.
“It’s about me trying to create an iconic rebel creature, he might be right and he might be wrong and it’s a tricky equation actually, to take this character that is capable of anything and yet we have to try and understand him. John Wayne was a hero, the hero stands for the status quo, he defends the status quo and the anti-hero rebels against it, and which one do you want? We actually need the two of them. We need a Nicky Rackard who is a John Wayne and we need a Tony Doran who is going to get that ball in there by hook or by crook.”
For the full interview, see the July 5 Irish World.