by Owen McCafferty
Review by Benedict Nightingale, The Times, 12 April 2003
LAST year, Owen McCafferty gave the National’s “transformation season” its finest new play in Closing Time, which was set in a decaying Belfast pub that seemed to symbolise the Ulster no-hope saloon. There was nothing about Prods or Papes in the piece, just a strong overall feeling that ordinary people were wanting, trying and failing to escape the town, the Province and themselves.
McCafferty’s latest piece is even better, but this time he isn’t content just to portray everyday hopelessness. After all, there aren’t many parts of the United Kingdom where a drug-dealer may get kneecapped, or brothers find a cache of arms buried in their dead da’s allotment, or the authorities finally fulfil an obsessive father’s hopes by discovering the body of the son who was murdered 15 years ago.
Not all of McCafferty’s “scenes from the big picture” are as politically out-front as that, but they’re invariably interesting and cumulatively justify the adjective in his title. Peter Gill, who directs with his usual simplicity and punch, has brought the Cottesloe a top-notch cast of Olivier size. Some 21 players fill the front row of the stalls, moving on to a set consisting only of plain blue furniture when it’s time for this or that character to add his or her piece to the big, confusing Belfast jigsaw.
Again, a pub plays its part. That’s where Karl Johnson’s Shanks cadges drinks at an ad-hoc wake, Ron Donachie’s Bobbie worries about a son who has fallen among teenage shoplifters, Stuart McQuarrie and Ruairi Conaghan pursue an age-old fraternal feud, and Michelle Fairley’s lovelorn Helen takes calls from Patrick O’Kane’s Joe, who is unhappily married to a desperately broody woman on the verge of becoming a baby-snatcher. But there’s no less discontent in the play’s other locales: an abattoir in financial trouble and a shop which John Normington’s Sammy and June Watson’s Betty are thinking of selling, thanks to thefts galore.
The play has funny moments, as when Shanks and Bobbie suddenly realise they may have come to the wrong man’s funeral and wake; but it’s fundamentally dark. Kathy Kiera Clarke’s Connie, already about as shaky and wan as junkies get, is beaten up by her dope-dealer lover.
In a still more painful sequence, Frances Tomelty and Dermot Crowley react in their very different ways to the long-ago murder of their son. This is, as someone says, a place where people feel as much in control of their lives as lumps of meat in that abattoir — and it’s brought to life with care, intelligence and, yes, love.
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