by Owen McCafferty
Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1, Telephone 020 7452 3000
Review by Alastair Macauley, Financial Times, 14 April 2003
You presume that Scenes from the Big Picture is set in Belfast. But during its two-and-a-half hours, nobody ever says so. Nobody ever talks of being Protestant or Catholic either; and when, late in the play, two brothers discover that their father kept a cache of weapons, we aren't told on whose behalf he might have used them.
Meanwhile what builds up, scene by scene, is a complex picture of one day in the life of the city. A teenage girl tries to take a boy swimming until they get hijacked by two more action-based boys. An anxious, ageing couple runs a grocery shop. A drug dealer bullies horrifyingly his junkie girlfriend while closing his local accounts. A businesswoman and her husband cope in various ways with the fact that their child disappeared long ago. One of her employees copes simultaneously with his wife's desperate desire for a child and his mistress's desire for him. His mistress runs a pub in which various characters wind up after a funeral including the two brothers, who have not spoken for the past 15 years.
At first, it's baffling. Who are all these people? And why should we care for them? What McCafferty's assembling is a picture of the very few degrees of separation between 19 characters. It is well over an hour before the 19th character first appears, but by that point we know all the others to some degree. McCafferty rounds them all, and we see most of them in more contexts than one. The drug dealer gives a lift to the woman who runs the grocery shop; he's amused when her husband talks of how he distrusts the local taxis because they're used for drug-running. The drug-dealer's girl, while he's gone, flashes her tits at two of the boys and throws her keys down to invite them up. When the cheating young husband misunderstands his wife, suddenly she understands he's cheating, and with whom. The mistress goes on minding the bar until closing time.
Peter Gill has staged it brilliantly; his scene-changing scenes between scenes are almost the most evocative parts of the whole play, with city life and individual lives suggested in moments, single actions, noises. The cast ranges from such expert actors as Frances Tomelty, June Watson, John Normington, Patrick O'Kane through to the four youngsters: beautifully accomplished work all round.
Scenes from the Big Picture is a more or less perfect play. But something's missing. This device of showing us the overlaps and distances between 19 different lives reminds me of a Robert Altman movie, and of a TV soap opera; but it leaves us more distanced. We're less hooked by the revealing details of these people than we're aware of the craft that has assembled them.
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