Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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All human life is here

Scenes from the Big Picture

by Owen McCafferty

National Theatre, London

Review by Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, 12 April 2003

The Northern Irish dramatist Owen McCafferty was one of the brightest discoveries of the National Theatre's Transformation season of new writing last year, and his promise is magnificently confirmed here. This stirringly ambitious piece, set in present-day Belfast with a cast of 21 characters, is the first production to open under Nicholas Hytner's directorship of Britain's flagship theatre and augurs brightly for his regime.

As the title suggests, this is an epic that attempts to put the whole of life on stage — birth, death, love, sex, work, families, the whole damn thing. Watching it, I was of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: "Here is God's plenty." In the early stages, I also found myself confused.

In a series of short, sharp scenes, McCafferty introduces a daunting variety of characters, ' ranging from yobbish teenagers to kind old crumblies, from abattoir workers to drug dealers. Just as you think you've got one lot sorted out, McCafferty moves on to another and then another. It takes time to establish who they all are and how they are connected, but the play richly repays the audience's patience and effort.

The action unfolds over 24 hours in Belfast but, as in Closing Time, McCafferty isn't interested in analysing sectarian conflict Indeed, he never tells us whether his characters are Catholic or Protestant, nationalist or republican. "I steer away from doing that, " he explained in a recent interview. "The point I want to make is that the emotional impact of everyday life and our relationships are more important to us than continually bickering over politics."

At first, I feared that the play might just be the theatrical equivalent of a TV soap. But McCafferty is a writer of depth and subtlety, as well as palpable humanity, and constantly confounds the audience's expectations. Just when you think you know where a particular plot line or relationship is going, McCafferty gives it a twist. His characterisation is detailed, vivid, and unpredictable, his dialogue pungent, and the piece constantly combines raw drama with quirky humour. Certain key ideas emerge strongly, too — about the control, or the lack of it, that we have over our own Eves, about the way most of us contain a mixture of good and bad.

Peter Gill, who attempted something similar — but less successful — in his own play, Cardiff East, does this rich play proud as director. There isn't a single weak performance, and though Alison Chitty's stylised monochrome design is far less evocative than it might be — the piece cries out for photographic images of contemporary Belfast — the production rarely relaxes its grip.

It seems invidious to pick out individual performers, but the relationship between Kathy Kiera Clarke's wasted waif of a junkie and Chris Corrigan as her abusive drug-dealing boyfriend is shatteringly powerful, as is Aofie McMahon's pain as a childless woman with an unfaithful husband. The Troubles do get a look in — Frances Tomelty and Dermot Crowley are deeply moving as a grieving couple whose son was killed in sectarian violence 15 years earlier and whose body has never been found, while Ruairi Conaghan and Stuart McQuarrie seem to symbolise the divided province as two warring brothers.

Best of all, perhaps, are Karl Johnson and Eileen Pollock as a couple of disgraceful old boozers, an hilariously grotesque pair worthy of O'Casey, and Ron Donachie as a tough giant of a man who has been hardened by life but who reveals sudden unexpected glimpses of tenderness and concern.

Scenes from the Big Picture is much more than the predictable state-of-the-province play I was expecting. Instead, McCafferty offers us a wise and compassionate view of the state of the human heart.

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