Monday 18 December 2017

Unlocking secrets of two strangers hiding behind the bathroom door

Stage pairing: real-life couple Seána Kerslake and Stephen Jones
Stage pairing: real-life couple Seána Kerslake and Stephen Jones

Chris McCormack

As Stephen Jones talks me through his play From Eden, a possible glimpse of self-doubt goes undetected, except, that is, by his co-actor and partner Seána Kerslake, who is sitting next to him.

"It's my first play I've put on since I've been quote-unquote 'professional'."

Seána laughs. "I think he knows you're ­professional."

Encouraging each other with wisecracks, neither seem comfortable giving praise or ­receiving it. Later on, Jones compliments Seána on her acting.

"I think Seána brings great depth to the characters that she plays."

"Which is funny because I've no depth," she jokes.

Since appearing in Mark O'Connor's film noir Between the Canals in 2010, Jones has played a shady line-up of law-tussling figures recognisable to fans of both the small and big screen.

He's demonstrated a nice range on stage, whether as a deft gallant in The Corn Exchange's Dubliners or Roy Keane in the musical comedy I, Keano, from playing an unfulfilled drunk in Druid's Conversations on a Homecoming to taking on multiple roles in Marie Jones's Stones in His Pockets.

"If you want someone to do 10 characters in a show with 10 different accents, I'm a good person to call.

"But I wanted to do the complete opposite of that. I wanted to write a play for me and Seána. I wanted it to be in one place in real time, where nothing big happens action-wise but there's a lot of drama in it".

With a push from Theatre Upstairs director Karl Shiels, Jones wrote From Eden, a two-hander about a pair of strangers locked inside a bathroom while trying to hide from a New Year's Eve party downstairs. Cagily comic and slyly subversive, it's written to defy our expectations.

"Twenty seconds into the play, I want the audience to believe they're watching a romantic comedy," Jones says.

It's easy to be duped, until surprising revelations about the characters come into focus.

"You don't know what's behind closed doors for people", says Seána.

Here, familiar signs may be interpreted as warnings. Jones lays out the scene: "He's there with his bottle of wine, and she comes in with the naggin of vodka and 7-Up bottle, and each time she takes it out, there's a laugh from the audience".

Seána draws a parallel to another genre-defying work, Stefanie Preissner's recent RTÉ drama Can't Cope, Won't Cope, in which she plays a hard-drinking woman living a destructive lifestyle in Dublin.

"Some people saw themselves initially as the women on the show, going out drinking Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday... Then by episode three and four, they were like: do I want to be that person? People were saying on Twitter, 'Oh God, is this girl an alcoholic?' Well, is she? That's a good question to ask."

Along with playing the eponymous role in Darren Thornton's film A Date for Mad Mary, adapted from the play by Yasmine Akram, Seána has already played a few characters who drift wearily into isolation.

"They're quite hard headspaces to be in. With Mad Mary, when we weren't filming at the weekend, I couldn't take her home.

"I don't think the likes of Stefanie or Darren or Stephen set out to say 'this is a piece about mental health, or alcoholism'. Instead, it just ends up bubbling to the surface."

If those issues are written to be more implicit than explicit, Jones seems to agree. "From Eden is not a mental-health play. It's about the characters."

More intently, he wanted to challenge certain presumptions

"There's moments in the play where someone says 'You're off your head' or 'You f**king weirdo', and the audience laugh. They're doing what the play says is so horrible in life - to judge people."

There were also the associations that come with playing with a Tallaght accent.

"We're both from the same place [Tallaght] and I wanted us to use our own accents. But the accents don't have any connotation. It's not like 'It's a Tallaght accent - so it's a working-class Dublin play'. Nothing to do with it".

So what's he writing next?

"It would want to be good," quips Seána, who is also putting pen to paper, writing a TV series with Mad Mary co-star Charleigh Bailey.

Jones admits he's nearly finished a new play, also intended to star the two of them. "We're aware that, while it's in a similar world to From Eden, we'll only do it if there's enough difference to it." He'll be shopping it around to theatre companies and there's also a bigger commercial project in the works.

Has Seána's recent onscreen success had a knock-on effect?

"It gives people a chance to see this rising star the newspapers are writing about," starts Stephen. She cringes beside him.

"There's something romantic about someone doing TV and films who you can see in a theatre above a pub," he says.

"It gives her more credibility in my eyes," he dares. "Being a theatre actor, you know what I mean? These movie stars can act."

"Oh, shut up."

From Eden runs at Bewley's Café Theatre at the Powerscourt Centre in Dublin from January 9-28.

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