Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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McCaferty Sets the Scene

Scenes from the Big Picture

by Owen McCafferty

National Theatre, London

Review by James Bregman, BBC News Online, 11 April 2003

Owen McCafferty's Scenes From The Big Picture is the first play under Nicholas Hytner's directorship of the National Theatre.

A mass invasion of the Irish at London's National Theatre is looking like a positive development.

Arriving at the Cottesloe without fanfare, Scenes from the Big Picture is a superb piece of work, devoid of star names but packed with talented performers.

The play follows the fortunes of 21 people over a period 24 hours, and the setting — as a huge map on the rear wall of the stage reminds us — is Belfast.

The characters' trials and tribulations are intertwined to varying degrees, although their individual stories are what writer Owen McCafferty draws upon.

Plotlines do not converge in any hugely significant fashion but the insights into their fortunes still prove wholly satisfying.

The funeral of a local is the cornerstone for much of what goes on. Tales branch off from here in multiple directions.

In quick succession we meet the dead man's quarrelling sons, his adulterous colleagues and a boss already grieving for a murdered child.

Other strands include the traumatic exploits of a drug-addled woman and her dealer boyfriend.

More endearingly, there is a show-stealing quartet of local youngsters whose existence is devoted to staving off boredom and keeping up with each other's antics.

Bringing together so many stories and characters in such a slick and organised manner is an impressive feat.

The duration of almost three hours flies by, thanks to swift pacing and the strength of the performances — there really is not one weak link in this highly-watchable ensemble.

Perhaps most impressive is the slickness with which McCafferty balances highly grim moments with laugh-out-loud comedy.

In other hands this could easily have been a Ken Loach style depression-fest, but the overall feeling is quite the opposite and the tone usually manages to remain upbeat.

The prevailing subtlety is a huge bonus, and the many low-key scenes are as strong as the moments of shocking violence.

With a welcome absence of histrionics or vast monologues, this excellent play proves that even with hard-hitting material, less can be more.

Scenes From The Big Picture is on at the National Theatre (Cottesloe) until 21 June.

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