Scenes from the Big Picture

Owen McCafferty

RNT Cottesloe

(2003)

Review by Philip Fisher

In some ways, it is hardly necessary to write a review of Scenes from the Big Picture, the title says it all. This is a big, sprawling series of snapshots of life in Belfast, written with much wit and a high degree of perception by one of the best young(ish) Northern Irish writers around.

Within Alison Chitty's bare, overwhelmingly royal blue design, director Peter Gill gives us a masterly production. He brings the best out of almost his entire massive cast, no fewer than 21 people who take the best part of an hour to introduce themselves to the audience, generally in ones and twos. The pace is always frenetic as scene changes are carried out by resting actors who often sprint on and off with blue props. When they are not doing this or acting, they sit on upright chairs watching the drama unfold.

McCafferty builds layer upon layer of pictures of contemporary Belfast life by showing characters who personify different aspects. There is a group of four kids who are likely to either remain unemployed or get dead end jobs at the local meat factory. They in turn, bully an old man and his wife who run the local grocer's shop.

We also see life in the meat factory itself through the eyes of the owner's PA who is desperately trying to keep the company on course. Its financial difficulties are such that it seems likely that it will close before the end of the play. This will cause problems for the shop steward who has enough troubles what with a wife and a lover, each of whom is making demands that he cannot satisfy. It is pleasing to report that the conclusion to this little love triangle is that they both ditch him simultaneously.

Not surprisingly for Ireland, the local pub is a focal point. It is run by the pretty Helen (Michelle Fairley) and populated with a combination of drunken old men, Harry Towb, Ron Donachie and Karl Johnson, as well as the wonderful Eileen Pollock as the shabby, lonely Sharon, known as the Rocket. Finally there are two brothers who haven't spoken to each other for years and are attending their father's wake. When they do speak, they learn a few things about old dad, Big Dan, that they hadn't bargained for.

This play is filled with surprises. Frances Tomelty as Theresa, the PA at the factory, is also the heartbroken mother of a son who disappeared 15 years ago and whose body has never been found. The shop steward, Joe, played by Patrick O'Kane, may have women trouble but when things seem to have reached an ultimate low, as his wife steals a baby from the local hospital, they are not what they seem. Similarly, when the local junkie and his girl need to run to pastures new, it is inevitable that their escape will not be pure and simple. Inevitably, if sadly, there are also a few paramilitaries thrown in for the luck.

This is a big rich play filled with wonderful characters and ideas in many ways like a novel. McCafferty has a great ear for the language of ordinary people. Peter Gill directs with incredible insight and in particular, the scene changes where people melt away from one as others appear for the next work well. Similarly, mobile phone calls take place with both characters visible. This is a new way of seeing telephone conversations. The person that you are talking to really is in the room with you even if, like a ghost, no one else in the room can see them.

Scenes from the Big Picture is filled with energy and life. It is hard to see how anyone can go and see it and fail to enjoy their evening.