Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Guardian review
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Michael Billington, Guardian Theatre CriticScenes from the Big Picture

by Owen McCafferty

National Theatre, London

Review by Michael Billington, The Guardian, 12 April 2003

On the strength of Closing Time and Shoot the Crow, I had Owen McCafferty down as a Northern Irish nano-realist. But his new play, which launches Nicholas Hytner's regime at the National, offers an impressively panoramic portrait of a day in the life of Belfast. While sectarian politics are scarcely mentioned, there is a sense of individual lives shadowed by economic uncertainty and sporadic violence.

The danger with this kind of play is that it can descend into soap opera, but McCafferty largely avoids this by reminding us of the bigger picture. Theresa, a middle manager at the meat plant, faces a dual crisis over the police's discovery of her dead son and her difficulty in paying the workers. On the day of their father's funeral, two warring brothers uncover an arms cache in his allotment. Robbie, a drug dealer who works the local clubs, batters his pill-popping doxy. And Sammy, a shopkeeper, decides to combat thieving tearaways with retaliatory violence.

McCafferty's ability to show not just the way individual lives intersect, but the collision of private and public worlds, is striking. The crisis at the meat factory, for instance, has a ripple effect: it underscores Theresa's troubled marriage, the shop steward is torn between union duties and a disintegrating affair, a gnarled former meat-packer is desperate to keep his footloose son out of the abattoir. You get a sense that Belfast is a place where economic problems feed private woes. My only reservation is that McCafferty resolves too many of the stories, as if trying to impose a unifying pattern.

But momentary flaws are overcome by Peter Gill's immaculate staging, which has the same urgent economy he brought to his own Cardiff East. The 21 actors sit in the front row as if part of the Cottesloe audience, leaping from their places to shift Alison Chitty's blue furniture or to enact a scene.

In such a vast cast, it is unfair to pick out individuals, but I was especially struck by Patrick O'Kane as the errant shop steward, Michelle Fairley as his disenchanted mistress, John Normington as the harassed shopkeeper, June Watson as his cancer-stricken wife, Ron Donachie as the burly meat-packer and Kathy Kiera Clarke as the dealer's spaced-out sidekick. But this is a communal achievement, one that shows us a side of Belfast we never normally see: the private lives blighted by political and economic stasis.

· Until June 21. Box office: 020-7452 3000.

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