Priceless Stones

Five minutes with Ian McElhinney

Double act, Stephen Jones and Conor Delaney

Ian McElhinney

First published in Entertainment & Lifestyle

STONES In His Pockets, has proved hugely enduring. Why do you think that is?

It’s magic. At the time, the idea of telling a whole story involving a large number of characters with just two actors seemed very novel. I think it captivates the audience’s imagination because an awful lot is created with very little. Once a show has generated that level of appeal and does well in the West End and on Broadway then the juggernaut is rolling, you know? And touch wood, please God, it keeps on rolling.

Were you at all surprised by its initial success, or did you have an inkling that, oh, we may be onto something here?

We believed that we had something good and we certainly had hopes for it. It began at the Traverse in Edinburgh as part of the festival which proved to be a very good showcase. It was an extraordinary phenomenon that the reviewers all liked it, or really liked it, and I remember thinking at the time “there’s real magic” in this. To be honest, when we started off we had an agenda, and that was to get it to the US, but off Broadway, if you know what I mean. We had hopes that it would travel but we never imagined it would take off in the way that it did. That took us all by surprise, and for about three years it was just an upward journey, which was very exciting really.

It must be a world away doing touring theatre, and then going back to go and work on something like Game of Thrones?

Yeah. I mean, I had to pinch myself on that one because I’ve been in this business for nearly 40 years now and had only had the odd fan letter here and there. Since I have been playing Barristan Selmy in Game of Thrones, I find that I’m recognised much more no matter where I seem to go, and it takes a bit of getting used to. People want pictures, “selfies” and autographs on a scale that I had just not been used to prior to this.

So what’s it like coming back to Stones In His Pockets, a production that you set on its way?

You know, it’s very interesting. I think I did it for too long the first time around, and I think it’s actually the hardest thing in the world to come back to a successful production with a new cast and try and recreate it. You are split between knowing what you already know, what already works and believing it works, while also trying to honour the fact that you’ve got fresh actors in the room with fresh ideas to accommodate. I actually came back to it after a gap of nearly ten years and found it very re-invigorating. I’m pretty confident that the way in which we do it works and we should cling to that.

The play’s written by your wife (Marie Jones) and you have your own production company. Would you advise working that closely with one’s own spouse?

I think it depends on the relationship. The bottom line is, you trust each other. trust the material because I know that she has a tremendous ability. I think she also gets considerable empathy from her audience because not only is there a warmth and honesty in her writing, but she also has a wicked and powerful sense of humour. So I know the material that comes to me ought to work theatrically and my job is just to try and ensure that it does. She trusts me to get on with that and is very good at leaving me alone really. (Laughter).

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where you were trained?

Well, I actually came into it late. I think I got the bug when I was 16, and that’s about 50 years ago. I started to spend most of my time when I was a student in Edinburgh doing plays rather than doing my course. Having said that, I got a degree, and then I wanted to live in America for a while. I also wanted to carry on acting so I thought the best way to do that was to be an ongoing student. So, I went to America to do something completely different and happened to arrive at a university that had its own theatre school.

Which one was that?

That was Brandeis in Boston. I was so envious of the people who were in the theatre school that I thought, ‘Oh sod this, I’ve always wanted to do this anyway.’ So I transferred into theatre school. I ended up getting a second degree, which in America they call an MFA in theatre studies. I came back to Britain. I spent the next four years as a teacher but at the age of 30 I decided to go for it in theatre. I remember saying, “Well, I’ll give it five years and see how I go”. It was going well enough after five years so I thought, “Well, you know, this is obviously what I should be doing, so I’m gonna stay put.” And that was that.

You’ve got three sons. How have you worked it with the so-called juggle of family and work life balance?

Well, I think we’ve been lucky in that. First of all, we had a very close family network here in Belfast. My mum is no longer with us, but for a period of time my mother-in-law lived with us and Marie’s sister lives close by so our boys spend quite a lot of time with her growing up. Because Marie and I are in the same business I think we always understood you have to go where you have to go. That’s the theatre.

Most fathers disappear early in the morning and return quite late in the evening and they might not catch much of their kids when they’re growing up. I think, in a funny sort of way, I think I got more of them than lots of fathers.

  • Tour dates: Durham Gala, September 10-11, Box Ofice: 03000-266-600 galadurham.co.uk Darlington Civic, Oct 11, 01325-486555 darlingtoncivic.co.uk Billingham Forum, Nov 4, 01642-552663 forumtheatrebillingham.co.uk York Grand Opera House, Nov 5, 0844- 871-3024 atgtickets.com/york Sunderland Empire, Nov 18, 0844-871- 3022, atgtickets.com/sunderland

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