Scenes From The Big Picture

Kirsten Kearney watches Owen McCafferty's Belfast play come home

Scenes from the Big Picture has come home. And come home to an appreciative audience. One that guffaws when it should, and has the decency to shed a sly tear when the heartstrings are tugged. One that gives a first night standing ovation.

For a 21st century audience, used to Big Brother and nightly doses of soap opera, Scenes from the Big Picture serves well. The 40 scenes splice neatly, paradoxically and raucously into each other, allowing quick-flash voyeuristic insights into the lives of 21 characters.

A much vaunted post-conflict play, Scenes From The Big Picture swept the boards in 2003, winning the John Whiting, The Meyer Whitworth and the Evening Standard Charles Wintour Awards for New Playwriting.

It is a play that easily lends itself to metaphor and is, in many ways, a play that needed to be written: an attempt to show a Belfast which, while theoretically new and fresh, is still mired in the mindset and legacy of a Troubles-led life. Scratch the surface of the domestic and you find a family of the disappeared. Dig up an allotment and you find a sinister paramilitary secret. Step out of line and you’ll lose your kneecaps.

McCafferty’s gift is in capturing the timbre and tones of Belfast and NI accents. The dialogue provides the play’s greatest strength, giving the actors words that they can make their own. The play exists, in large part, in its dialogue rather than its theatricality, bringing the vitality of a radio play to the stage. The set turns and shifts, from pub to office to shop to bedsit, with photographic projections providing the urban cityscape and scenic backdrop.

The theme, to state the obvious, is ‘life’. Life in its multiplicities, complexities and trivialities. Life where the individual is overlooked, where ‘nothing’s secure and we can’t make plans.’ Where the characters have an overwhelming feeling that they are pawns in their own lives, rather than kings and queens.

The play covers birth, copulation, death, murder, cover-up, betrayal, frustration and struggle – mixed with a small dose of innocence. However each strand is limited, due to the large amount of interlocking stories, so that plotlines cannot be fully developed. Characters are difficult to care about, and the performance has the feel of a panoramic shot, rather than a series of close ups.

On the other hand, the scope, perhaps, offers something for everyone. Aficionados of NI humorous theatre will warm to the drunken shenanigans of Ivan Little and Paddy Jenkins’ Bobbie Torbett and Shanks O’Neill, and the antics of the bereaved Foggarty brothers. Others might find that these scenes jar and override the more pressing themes.

It’s tricky to figure out when the play is set. Some details suggest the present-day (like a kneecapping being captured, happy-slapping style, on a mobile phone camera) but despite the post-Troubles credentials this still feels like a Belfast of 20 years ago.

On a stage full of obvious and well-documented talent a few are worthy of special note. The innocence captured in Karen Hassan’s Maggie and Conor MacNeil’s Bop Torbett is heart-warming, refreshing and a source of hope.

The excellent two-hander from Niall Cusack and Eleanor Methven, as the parents of a disappeared son, warrants development. The discovery of their son's body, on the very day the search was to stop, fails to reach the dramatic potential promised by their earlier scenes.

Poignant moments raise broader issues, but catch the audience off guard. Joe Hynes has a moment of epiphany realising that ‘We have as much control over our lives as the lumps of meat we carry around,’ but his words are ignored by the oblivious Theresa whose concern with the practicalities of work and unemployment render such thoughts unimportant.

Similarly, the cosmic musings of the one character who carries himself with dignity, Frank Coin, which draws the play to a close, run the risk of being overlooked:

'… he said that when we talk – the sound we make travels up into space and goes on forever – it never goes away… listenin’ to it a had this thought y’know – wouldn’t it be good to think that if there was somebody y’could no longer talk to – that if y’said something to them that yet words would travel up into space and that they might meet up with words that that person had once said to you – wouldn’t that be a nice thing…'

As the play ends a meteorite shower fills the stage, illuminating each of the characters and their lives. There is a strange sense of shared histories, of the presence of the living among the dead and of the dead among the living. Of the interconnectedness of all things, and an overwhelming sense of journeying.