Originally performed in 1988 at the Bush Theatre, A Handful of Stars made its revival at Theatre503 in April this year, and the production has been transferred from this sell-out run to Trafalgar Studios. The play, by Billy Roche, displays the life of an aggressive youth, Jimmy, and his friends, foes and role models, all set in a pub in the Irish town of Wexford. In truth, the play itself never draws any strong sympathy, heartfelt moments or revelations that you might expect from this kind of potent naturalism. However, the humour, attention to detail and solid cast turn this into something special.
When entering the space, the set by Signe Beckmann immediately gives a sense of location, time and tone of the piece. The smoke-stained walls, jukebox and slot machine is like a visit from the ghost of pubs gone by, evoking an aroma of beer-soaked carpet and old cigarette butts. A pool table is the centrepiece of the stage and during the show the actors play games of pool whilst delivering their lines. This provides an ingenious way of allowing for the realistic ebb and flow of conversation; long silences are made interesting as you find yourself genuinely invested in the game. I am not sure if the actors had rehearsed a number of scenarios, improvised or were so good at pool that they could replicate the intended outcome of the games, but either way, it was very impressive to watch.
In this regard, the cast were fantastic. In particular, Ciarán Owens was a brilliant lead as Jimmy. This character was utterly horrible and unlikable, yet he bought a level of charm that allowed you to laugh at his jokes, even after we were disgusted by his behaviour. The Irish accents were a strong point for me, because there was no overt effort to tone them down for the audience, meaning that occasionally, you had to grasp the gist of lines rather than completely understand. To other audience members, this may have irritated, but I loved it as an addition to the authenticity of the production.
In fact, the realism was such a strong point, that when the performance fell short or attempted to do anything synthetic or cinematic, it came across as weak. The jukebox permitted a great 80s soundtrack, but at moments of significance, atmospheric music would creep in. Instead of allowing you to invest in those moments, the music had the opposite effect. Scene changes also had this consequence of pulling you out of the performance, as the lights were dimmed as actors moved a couple of props around, sometimes seemingly for no reason whatsoever.
Despite these shortcomings, the production is a wonderfully executed slice of life, with powerful performances and an excellent level of detail. Director Paul Robinson and his team were right to revive the material and provide a humorous, gritty and entertaining portrayal of Irish pub life.
A Handful of Stars is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 25 July. For more information and tickets, see the ATG Tickets website.