Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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Dark brilliance

Scenes from the Big Picture

by Owen McCafferty

National Theatre, London

Review by Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard, 11 April 2003

FEWER than 57 varieties of Belfast life are seen in Owen McCafferty's captivating, kaleidoscopic view of a city living in desolation's long shadow. But there are enough impressions of the place and sufficient anguished evocation of its people to remind us what a dark night of the soul you can enjoy over there from early morning. For McCafferty's play which in form and content resembles about five highly superior episodes of some mythical Belfast soap opera on Channel 4, bathes us in loneliness and violence, foreboding and post-funeral drunkenness, aggression and marital disarray, not to mention teenage sex play for light, comic relief. There is such a rush of brief scenes and people in them that McCafferty is unable sufficiently to develop or intertwine characters and their conflicts.

Yet he enthuses painful encounters with an authentic sense of pain and regret — only a sentimental finale of glittering starlight spoils the effect And Peter Gill's austere but superlative production, notable for the finest ensemble acting in London, charges the night with pathos. Designer Alison Chitty creates a bare, blue playing area. Stacked tables and chairs are swiftly assembled as a bar or shop by actors, who double as stage-hands and sit in the front row when not performing. These procedures emphasise the production's theatrical working methods. But you forget the artifice because the acting proves so intense, natural and focused.

McCafferty's characters agitate and intrigue, argue and confront their way through 24 hours during which the political intrudes upon the personal, and alcohol becomes the opium of the drinking classes. Dermot Crowley, touchingly downcast and obsessed, plays an old man searching for his long-dead son's grave. A young drug dealer and his simple girl run scared of gangsters, Two feuding brothers discover their newly dead daddy kept a buried stash of guns. But McCafferty is test at dealing with the personal. Scenes from the Big Picture displays vignettes of the unhappy old, hopeless middle-aged and insecure young. John Normington and June Watson as an ageing couple whose shop is subject to vandals and thieves, Patrick O'Kane, the part-time adulterer spitting cruel abuse at his childless wife, and Karl Johnson and Eileen Pollock as lost lonesome drunks are rivetingly pathetic. Their scenes bring Belfast's drama to dark life.

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