As excuses for missing a phone call goes, “I was lost in the middle of the country” isn’t too bad. It’s certainly more imaginative than ‘I didn’t hear it ringing’ and more believable than ‘I got mugged by Ken Dodd’.
“Where I am is absolutely beautiful,” Stones In His Pocket playwright Marie Jones tells me when she finally makes it back to safety and picks up her mobile, “but it’s like the Wild West. There’s no order or signs or anything. But it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”
As Kilburn’s Tricycle theatre prepares to revive her Olivier Award-winning comedy, Jones is tucked away at an artist’s retreat working on another project entirely. It is, she explains, the perfect place to come and work; the peace, the tranquillity, the isolation, and the sense of community fostered by its one rule, that all the artists have to come down for dinner at 19:00. “Then the bottles of wine come out and you don’t do any more work, you just talk s**te until four in the morning.”
Oh, to talk with Jones after a glass or two of merlot. Even without the lubrication of a good vintage she has a tale or two every other breath and finishes more than one train of thought with the exclamation that “That’s another story”. It’s five minutes into our chat before we even broach the subject of her most famous creation, the tale of a small Irish village invaded by the filming of a Hollywood movie.
“If we were going to bring it back,” she explains about the decision to revive Stones In His Pockets, “we wanted it to be fresh.” The comedy, originally a hit at the Tricycle theatre at the turn of the century, played in the West End for five years before closing in 2006. By then, Jones had seen the production alter from the Olivier Award-winning comedy to “a copy of the original. The heart got lost the more it was being done.” So, though the play continued to be produced across the world, Jones ensured London didn’t mount a major revival. Until now.
Why now? Well, the opportunity to start all over again, to get back to the words on the page and “the disintegration of a rural community with nothing to replace it except Hollywood” was too tempting. In Indhu Rubasingham, the heir apparent to Nicolas Kent’s Artistic Directorship at the Tricycle, she found her ideal director.
“It was a complete waste of time and what it cost would have fed a small African country”
“She takes no nonsense,” Jones tells me of the director with whom she first worked on the Tricycle’s Women, Power and Politics season. It’s just as well; Jones is the first to admit she needs a director on her case to get the work done. She does a killer impression of Rubasingham’s polite nagging too, but that just wouldn’t work in print, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
As if to illustrate her ability to meander away from the subject in hand like a directionally challenged stream, she quickly pipes up with “I’ve just noticed a lonely poet walking up from the lake.” Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it, if you throw in a dash of mist and maybe a shaft of sunlight breaking through a cloudy sky. “He’s probably hung over from last night.” That crashing sound you can hear are my illusions being shattered.
Quickly, back to the point. Despite all its success, the Stones In His Pockets journey hasn’t come without a cloud to go with its silver lining. Director Pam Brighton, who worked on an early incarnation of the show, took Jones to court in 2001 claiming she was owed joint writing credits. Three years later, Jones emerged battered but victorious. Yet for all that – “It was a complete waste of time and what it cost would have fed a small African country” – Jones still loves the play: “I have to think about the great journey we had with it; the craic, the laugh, all those countries, all those parties.”
As she recollects, the various stories kick in again. “I could write a book on the Greek one. It was like a song and dance routine from the beginning to the end.” Of the Ecuadorian production: “There was an actor who was actually called Mosquito. He was smaller than me and I’m only four foot ten. He didn’t feel right or look right, but he was absolutely brilliant. He just made you weep. He got to the soul.” And in Japan: “The first line is ‘I’ll have the lemon meringue pie, please’. They made it sound like ‘I’m going to kill you, right now!’”
She is equally excited about seeing the latest production at the Tricycle, but there is also the small matter of Fly Me To The Moon, the play she is putting the finishing touches to, for her to worry about. As she sits in seclusion, editing and re-editing, it is, she says, a case of “history totally repeating itself”.
In 1983, Jones was an actress looking for work. Invigorated after seeing Martin Lynch’s play Dockers, she asked the playwright to create something for her and her all-female touring company Charabanc. He told them they should write it themselves, and Jones’s career as a playwright began.
Thirty years on, Lynch now works closely with Jones – he is producing Fly Me To The Moon, and also happens to be at the retreat, sharing wine with his friend and collaborator – and it is she being approached to help out of work actresses. Unlike Lynch, however, she has come to their aid with pen in hand.
“The first line is ‘I’ll have the lemon meringue pie, please’. They made it sound like ‘I’m going to kill you, right now!’”
“They’d never get it on,” she says when I ask why she didn’t dispense the advice that set her on the road to writing. “Nobody would take a chance now. It’s just too difficult. Two unknowns; they would never get the money to do it. When we started, we had to lobby anybody we knew on the city council to give us money. These two women could be sitting around forever. Plus,” she adds, “I wanted to.”
She paints an increasingly depressing picture for young Irish actresses. If it was hard to get work 30 years ago, it is even more difficult now, with more actresses trying to make it at a time when few people are taking chances with their money. Yet for those that do, she says, acting is a fine profession. She should know, she’s still stepping out on stage as well as writing. In fact, she recently appeared in a revival of the show that inspired her three decades ago, Dockers.
“It’s not a big, hard job to do; get to the Lyric [Theatre, Belfast] for seven o’clock, then you’re in the bar by ten to ten. I always remind actors that nobody else gets clapped at the end of their job.”
Not even playwrights, most of the time, though I’m sure that’s the furthest thing from Jones’s mind at the end of a performance, especially if there’s a cheeky glass of wine to be had and a story to share.