In a quiet, secluded corner of Battersea, Theatre 503 aims to source new and innovative material. In a more recent move the Second Look initiative has been introduced, and a play from the 1980s or 90s is revived, twice a year.
A Handful of Stars was originally a part of Billy Roche’s The Wexford Trilogy, a fascinating snapshot of life in a small southern Irish town. It was first performed successfully in 1988 at the Bush Theatre.
All the action is centred in a scruffy mouldy pool hall. Signe Beckmann’s set captures accurately its decrepit and stifling atmosphere. The protagonist, Jimmy Brady – the town’s self-appointed trouble-maker-in-chief, is insolent, arrogant and crass. His father was an abusive drunk and Jimmy’s personality has been shaped by his violence and by the prejudice his fellow townsmen show against him, for being his father’s son. He feels both angry and trapped, while at the same time lacking the maturity and self-restraint to turn his life around. His anger is all-pervasive and all-consuming. His best friend Tony is a shy, gauche teenager, malleable and long-suffering from Jimmy’s escapades.
Both boys have made the pool hall their second home, but even there constraints are imposed. The back room with the good pool table and cues is for members only, a symbolic and practical obstacle, drawn to once again exclude them. Jimmy wants to just ignore it, while Tony aspires to be invited in, eventually. That back room world is occupied by Conway, a big-mouthed know-it-all, whose petty gossip and bravado always aim to humiliate and Stapler – played by Keith Duffy of Boyzone, the celebrity of the ensemble – a former boxer, who’s a bit of a tough guy, a bit of a joke. Paddy, the gruff old caretaker, Garda Swan and Linda, Jimmy’s girlfriend, complete the cast.
A Handful of Stars adheres to a conventional narrative driving towards the inevitable self-destruction of Jimmy and the text lacks the complexity and strength that would make it exceptional. Yet, it is honest, tender and balanced in depicting stifling, closed-minded small –town attitudes and the intensity of teenage frustration.
Scenes of macho camaraderie built up to intense confrontations only to be slightly defused with humour. At the same time, Jimmy oscillates from obnoxious braggart to vulnerable and damaged teenager, gradually building up to his fated destruction.
The younger actors gave on occasion slightly exaggerated performances, yet they showed great promise, while the older more experienced ones seemed to occupy their characters with greater aplomb.
A worthy revival of a quite decent play. Should you find yourself in Battersea, grab the opportunity to see it.