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A CurtainUp London Review
Scenes from the Big Picture
by Lizzie Loveridge
The world premiere of Owen McCafferty's new play Scenes from the Big Picture opens Nicholas Hytner's reign as Artistic Director at the National Theatre. Directed by Peter Gill, in the tiny Cottesloe Theatre, Scenes from the Big Picture gives us twenty four hours in the life of a community in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Unlike many plays from Northern Ireland which have concentrated on "The Troubles", Scenes from the Big Picture does not. With twenty one actors and forty scenes fitted into two and three quarter hours, it is an eventful piece of staging. Like the opposite of unravelling a piece of weaving, Owen McCafferty starts with many small groups of actors, sometimes defined by location, the shop, the pub, the abattoir but all having a story to tell. The playwright skilfully weaves together these people into one narrative. In a circular twist, the capitalist-ambitious drug dealer offers the shopkeeper protection from the petty thieves who need to steal from the shop to buy drugs. Talk about creating a market!
It is Peter Gill's impressive direction which has made this production special. He places all his actors on chairs at what would be the front row of the audience. They watch impassively but scene shift in character. As one scene closes and the replacing of stage furniture happens, one character will continue from the previous scene drawing our attention away from the scene changing. This technique gives the play an identity as a whole, "the big picture", rather than a series of cut scenes. There is no pause, just a dramatic connectivity.
I cannot summarise the plot simply. These are some of the themes: the shopkeeper and his sick wife, the junky and her drug dealer boyfriend, the pub landlady and her lover and his barren wife, the couple whose son has been presumed murdered but has never been found, industrial relations at the abattoir, the people going to a funeral, teenage sexual politics. The people overlap, many of them are customers at the shop or the pub, they know each other, they live alongside each other. It is the writer's skill which has established these characters in my head within a few minutes onstage. McCafferty's play is never complicated or hard to follow, the clarity of the writing says it all.
There are of course some very fine performances. Karl Johnson, very funny, as Shanks O'Neill, as much a part of the bar as the bar stools, free loader at the funeral who asks to borrow money from the family of the deceased. "The man's just lost his father", says his friend. "No better time" replies the unscrupulous Shanks. Joined by Sharon the Rocket (Eileen Pollock), a woman past her prime taking consolation in the gin bottle and the solid Bobbie Torpett (Ron Donachie), these three habitués of the bar are character-rich. I liked Frances Tomelty's Theresa Black, efficient secretary at the abattoir negotiating with Patrick O'Kane's reasonable shop steward, Joe Hynes. Both have problems at home. In a moving performance, Dave Black (Dermot Crowley) wants to mark the fifteen year anniversary of the disappearance of their son presumed murdered. Joe Hynes' wife Maeve (Aoife McMahon) shows an unhealthy interest in someone else's pregnancy while Joe thrills to the other woman, Michelle Fairley's efficient Helen Woods, owner of the pub. John Normington is the likeable shopkeeper of the small grocery store, battling against vandalism and petty theft. There are the two feuding brothers whose dead father's message to them is to make it up, and the teenagers, looking for work, sex and the meaning of life.
Some touches of pure Gill: when they talk on the phone they start and end holding a phone but in the middle, the actors put down the telephones and look at each other as if they are talking face to face. This allows us to concentrate on what they are saying, what the impact is on the other, rather than the fact that this conversation is taking place on the phone.
The set is electric blue, a rooftop outlined in brick so that the stars can shine in the night sky. All the props from tables and chairs to bar and stools and shop counter are also bright blue. On the rear wall is a painted map of Belfast, the main arteries and the river shown.
There is lots to think about in McCafferty's play, many things to make you smile and a few to make you sad. Scenes from the Big Picture is a slice of Belfast life, a place we can relate to, people we feel we know, reminding us of our unique place in the universe.
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