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Game of Thrones actor Ian McElhinney on directing hit play Stones in His Pockets

Game of Thrones actor Ian McElhinney talks about the double life that sees him directing hit play Stones in His Pockets

Ian McElhinney who is directing Stones in His Pockets
Ian McElhinney who is directing Stones in His Pockets

Fans of Game of Thrones, the hugely popular American fantasy drama series, will know him as Barristan Selmy – otherwise known as Barristan the Bold – and that, you would imagine, gives an actor quite a lot to live up to.

“It has become a massive industry,” acknowledges Belfast-born Ian McElhinney, enjoying a bit of late-flowering stardom at the age of 66.

“OK, I’ve done a fair bit of stuff and every now and again someone might send a fan letter, but the extent to which that has grown through Game of Thrones is extraordinary.

“The thing is an international phenomenon and everywhere you go it’s not surprising if someone comes up and says, ‘Any chance of an autograph?’ There is a lot more fan mail than there ever was before and it’s a bit of a cross to bear sometimes... but it’s nice, too, that the recognition is out there.”

Ian, who by his own admission has had a “solid rather than a stellar” career, would be the envy of many in his profession, having spent the majority of his 36 years in the business not ‘resting’ (as actors do when no-one wants them).

Stephen Jones and Conor Delaney rehearsing Stones in His Pockets
Stephen Jones and Conor Delaney rehearsing Stones in His Pockets
 

He is speaking to me from Dublin where he is involved in the filming of the third series of Ripper Street for the BBC – but the main reason for our chat is not the TV series, in which he first appeared in 2011 as Theodore P Swift, nor even an acting role.

The play in question is Stones in His Pockets, one of the biggest theatrical success stories ever to emerge from humble beginnings.

Ian was the original director of the play, when it became first a Belfast and then a West End hit, and he is back at the helm as the comedy two-hander is revived for an extensive UK tour this autumn.

Second stop, early next month, is the Gala Theatre in Durham but it also visits Carlisle, Darlington, Whitley Bay and Sunderland later in the run.

Ian is currently wearing two hats. “I’m moving between my Ripper Street duties and the play,” he says. “All being well, I’ll keep the boat afloat. Often there is a moment, when I wake up in the morning, of which horse am I on today?”

Hats, boats, horses? This is one busy chap. Although a successful actor, he says he directed a few things “for the hell of it” quite a few years ago and developed a taste for it.

“Now I probably split my time evenly between the two things. It’s a question of which job comes up.

“They’re both demanding in different ways and that’s part of the pleasure of it, doing things that occupy different parts of your head.

“As a director you’ve got many more things to think about, many more problems to solve, and that’s part of the challenge.

“As an actor you throw yourself into a role and become very focused on that particular performance. That’s very stimulating, too. There are different sets of requirements.”

As an actor who has also been a director, Ian can offer a note of reassurance to young men and women following him into the acting side of the profession.

Kelvin Boyes Marie Jones who wrote Stones in His Pockets
Marie Jones who wrote Stones in His Pockets
 

“If you’re young you can really beat yourself up if you don’t get a part you’ve gone for. But I know, from being involved in casting, that there are so many factors that come into play that an actor never knows about.

“It’s not always because an actor hasn’t delivered at an audition that he doesn’t get a part. Sometimes, even if someone give a superb audition, something in your guts tells you another person is bettrer suited to the part. Young actors should know that and not get too depressed. In any case, it will happen and you’d better get used to it.”

How come Ian got to direct Stones in His Pockets, a play that audiences and critics loved and that gathered awards like a squirrel gathers nuts?

Well, he’s married to the woman who wrote it, for one thing. Marie Jones, the Irish playwright, is also well known for Women on the Verge of HRT, A Night in November, Dancing Shoes and Fly Me to the Moon.

Ian recalls that, having done some work at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, he was asked if he would like to do something else. Having replied that he could fancy directing something, he asked Marie if she had anything up her sleeve.

She suggested that a little play that had had a limited life a few years before had more mileage in it. This was Stones in His Pockets, a dark-edged comedy set in a rural community in County Kerry that becomes temporary home to a Hollywood film crew.

In this little backwater the wide-eyed locals are mesmerised by the glamour of the movie people until disillusionment sets in. Locals and film crew, it becomes clear, have different agendas.

The most notable thing about the play is that two male actors play not only the main characters, Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn, who are both employed as extras, but all the other characters as well.

Marie revisited her script and developed it during the rehearsal period.

“We thought it was a play that we could travel and get some mileage out of,” says Ian. “We planned to take it to Edinburgh during the Fringe but we never expected it to take flight the way it did. What happened in Edinburgh was that we got unfeasibly good reviews. Everyone seemed to like it.

“We took it to London and new reviews came in and there were nothing but positive vibes about it. It became apparent that it was probably a West End product althought the production values are very straightforward with very simple costumes and sets. It won two Olivier Awards and was nominated for Tony Awards on Broadway. Now the play is done all over the world in umpteen languages.”

Striving to put his finger on its enormous appeal, Ian says: “It takes a look at what is the reality of the stories that we choose to tell?”

Colm Hogan A scene from Stones in His Pockets
A scene from Stones in His Pockets
 

The Hollywood incomers have a story that they want to tell which doesn’t really involve the real-life stories they find in their temporary home. The locals, feeling increasingly marginalised, come to feel their story is of little consequence to those with the power and the money.

Ian says he and Marie had a great time with the play the first time around. “Now I’ve been away from it for a long time and I’m glad about that because I think I probably did it too much in the early years.

“But it’s great to be back with it. There’s always something new that crops up when you have a new cast. An actor will do something and you’ll think, I like that – let’s see where we can go with that. Also, the chemistry’s always a little different when you get a new pairing.”

Playing Jake and Charlie this time around are Conor Delaney and Stephen Jones.

Conor was in the play once before, a few years ago when Ian wasn’t directing. “It means he can get into it quickly but it’s also long enough ago to be fresh for him,” says the director.

Conor has also been in Game of Thrones but their paths never crossed. Similarly, Stephen has worked on Ripper Street but he and Ian never worked together.

This is how the acting game is, it seems: ships passing in the night, unaware of each other’s presence but berthing together in the programme notes or the closing credits.

Ian, providing he manages to stay astride the right horse, wear the right hat and keep the boat afloat, will soon be back in the throes of filming the fifth series of Game of Thrones.

I ask him for a plot summary and he gives it a go: “In a nutshell, let’s say there are seven families who are all squabbling and trying to come out on top. There are several huge stories, all interwoven, and it’s very easy to get lost.”

The fans, though, will be with it all the way.

Meanwhile, Stones in His Pockets will be on a stage near you shortly.

Look out for it at the Gala Theatre, Durham, on September 10 and 11 (03000 266600); Sands Centre, Carlisle, on September 26 (012228 633766); Darlington Civic Theatre on October 11 (01325 486555); Playhouse Whitley Bay (0844 2481588) on October 28; and Sunderland Empire on November 18 (0844 8713022).

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