Writer: Billy Roche
Director: Paul Robinson
Reviewer: Andy Moseley
Another day, another production with publicity material that places undue emphasis on the presence of a former soap opera star in its cast. In this case the star in question is also a member of Boyzone making his West End debut, but all the same it shouldn’t be the main talking point, and it’s unfortunate that that’s what it has become. A Handful of Stars was a big hit when it was staged at Theatre 503, and has earned its West End transfer on the back of the performances of all the cast, under the excellent direction of Paul Robinson.
Set in the 1980s in the pool room of a rundown snooker club that has probably never seen better days, Signe Beckmann’s set captures the period immaculately, with jukebox, fruit machine, benches with ripped seating, and old photos dotted around the walls. Jimmy and Tony are only allowed in the pool room, the ‘members only’ notice on a tatty piece of paper, sellotaped to a wooden door, prevents them from playing on the snooker table that lies behind it. For Tony, becoming a member is something to aspire to. For Jimmy, exclusion from it is just another thing to rail against, and Jimmy has a lot of things to rail against. His sense of injustice at his lot may be partly justified, but he crosses the line in absolving himself from any responsibility for his actions, as he moves from being a feckless layabout to a mindless criminal lashing out in all directions with no thought of the consequences.
Against this backdrop, other readily recognisable types live out their lives. There is Stapler, the ageing boxer whose identity is defined by the sport he is going to have to shortly give up. There is Paddy the club owner who knows all about his customers but would never betray any of them to Swan, the local policeman who seems to be alone in his fight against crime, and completing the list of characters, there’s Conway, the ‘keep your head down’ worker and Linda, the object of the affections of most of the people she works with, and the height of achievement for anyone she goes out with.
They are all perfectly drawn and the dialogue captures their ambitions and the reality of their lives with a pinpoint accuracy, always convincing, and always holding the audience’s attention even when the subject matter is mundane. The problem with the play stems from how well the ordinariness of their lives and situations are depicted. There is little that happens for long periods and Jimmy’s demise is unconvincing, minor events triggering seismic changes, with no sense of a gradual decline. Ciaran Owens gives a very strong performance but the script gives him little to play with at times, it is the character rather than his portrayal of it, that feels underdeveloped.
Michael O’Hagan as Paddy, the long standing owner of the club, delivers an excellent performance, the opening scene where he opens up for the evening is completely mesmerising, setting the tone and atmosphere perfectly. Brian Fenton as Jimmy’s nervous acolyte Tony is also very good, in awe of a man he would be better off avoiding. Keith Duffy also convinces as Stapler. It’s almost a cameo part, but one that suggests he is more than capable of shaking off any misconceptions that accompany the standard singer turned actor stereotype.
In the end, it’s an excellent production of what is only a good play, and the gaps and flaws come through in spite of the efforts to disguise them.
Photo: Richard Davenport | Runs until 26 July