Scenes From The Big Picture
'The Belfast audience's famously black sense of humour now borders on imbecility.'
London. Pasadena. Washington DC. And now, finally, Belfast. Owen McCafferty’s multi-award winning Scenes From the Big Picture has come home. The fact that it has taken four years since its premiere at the National Theatre in London to get here is a scandal. Like Shakespeare having to premiere Henry V in Belgium.
Scenes is a big play in every sense - 21 actors, two and a half hours long, a myriad of intertwining, intercutting, intercoursing stories taking place over 24 hours on a hot summer’s day. It’s as Belfast as Samson and Goliath, the Falls and the Shankill, a gargle and soda bread.
Ironically, bringing the play back to its roots does it no favours. Earlier this year, I saw the Washington production from fledging theatre company Solas Nua. The US-based cast gamely attempted Belfast accents that ranged from Welsh to Jamaican and yet, amazingly, their version was truer to life than this Prime Cut production.
Not being from Northern Ireland freed up the US actors to create genuine characters, full of subtlety and life. In Belfast too many of the characters lapse into tedious caricatures. The drug dealer’s moll becomes a simple, spaced out, two-dimensional Daily Mail cliché, the gunmen similarly so. The hammy pub drunks are played here in the long NI theatrical tradition that encompasses James Young and Grimes & McKee. Yet when McCafferty writes about drinking, as work like Cold Comfort and his version of Days of Wine and Roses clearly shows, it’s worth looking a little deeper.
The blame can’t entirely be levelled at director Conall Morrison, either. It seems that the Belfast audience’s famously black sense of humour now borders on imbecility. We’re so used to laughing off violence and horror that our reactions verge on the pathological. Listen more carefully to the dialogue, to the subtext, and it’s really not that funny. As McCafferty might write, it’s not fucking Give My Head Peace.
And we really will laugh at anything. A lonely alcoholic, ho ho ho. A double kneecapping, ha ha ha. In Washington the kneecapping was shocking, a moment of visceral drama. In Belfast it’s cartoonish, something to giggle at, applaud even. Sure it’s only a drug dealer after all.
‘Where’s the joke here?’ asks one of the Foggarty brothers, who have just buried their father. Don’t worry lads, even if there is no joke we’ll find something to laugh at.
McCafferty is a playwright that actors love. He gives them words and scenarios worth getting stuck into - wisecracks, swearing, sex (as my companion remarked happily at the interval, ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good onstage blow job’), violence, and a script that drives forward towards dramatic epiphanies of pain, rage, disappointment, loss and even (whisper it) sentiment.
The play is packed full of issues - yob culture, dealing with the past, drinking, working life, infertility and infidelity to name a few - yet none of these ever threaten to subsume the characters. It’s just their lives, our lives.
This production’s brat pack - Packy Lee, Matthew McElhinney, Conor MacNeil and Karen Hassan - deliver fizzing performances as teenagers on the cusp of life, perhaps because they have yet to be worn down by Ulster theatrical tradition.
Niall Cusak and Eleanor Methven as husband and wife Dave and Theresa Black, whose son is one of the Disappeared, are allowed to give performances of depth and maturity. Here McCafferty’s writing is desperately moving. On being told that her son’s body has been found after 15 years, Theresa says: ‘How did they find him - where was he - did they use a digger - it didn't hit him or anything did it?’
Paddy Jenkins as the inveterate gargler Shanks O’Neill gives a sharp and vicious masterclass in comedy acting. But again his character ends up little more than caricature. If you actually had to sit next to him in the pub the weasely O’Neill would be as repellent as he is here hilarious.
Although minimal, the set design would benefit from being more minimal still. The floor of the stage is crisscrossed by a street map, which is in turn crisscrossed by the cast, ramming an unnecessary point unnecessarily home.
Similarly the photographs of alleyways, terraces, chippies etc, that are flashed up during scene changes and used as backdrops are more hindrance than help. A photograph of a fuzzy allotment shed when the Foggarty brothers are, yes, drunk in an allotment, is just plain silly. We geddit, we geddit...
While the scene changes are slick and well choreographed, they are also inconsistent. Sometimes the actors continue acting, sometimes they merely shift scenery. When the kneecapping victim leaps to his feet straight away it shatters any possible suspension of disbelief. With a little more imagination, these inconsistencies could and should have been ironed out.
The denouements of the stories, the ‘moments’ that McCafferty is so adept at creating in his plays, are also hit and miss. Some feel rushed. Paddy Scully as Frank Coin, a quiet old man whose presence cleverly ties the whole play together, employs an interesting accent - part Ballymena man, part Scarlett O’Hara - and in so doing renders his poignant final lines almost unintelligible.
Despite the uneven production, Scenes From the Big Picture remains streets ahead of anything else you’re likely to see this year. Not once in the two and a half hours does time drag. See it. Admire it. Be proud that Belfast has produced a playwright of McCafferty’s calibre and a ballsy theatre company like Prime Cut. And perhaps, at risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, think a little before you laugh.
'I am emailing because I've just read the review on the CultureNorthernIreland website - and I thought it was a timely, right-on, and searing indictment of Northern Irish audiences. It needed to be written.'
'I never respond to things like this but I feel compelled to write in to complain the egregriously inept review I've just read of Scenes From the Big Picture by John Lewis. Who is he? what is his background? If anything was 'imbelici' it was his prattling prose and whimsy. Since when does personal commentary on an audience reactions constitute a professional review of a play? Both Mcafferty's superb play and an extraordainary production - as well as your own website - was done a great disservice by a substandard, poorly written, hack- job (in every sense of the word) of a review ... If I feel this strongly as an ordinary punter who goes to the theatre regularly, one can only imagine what those involved in what was one of the best productions I have ever seen in Belfast must feel like.'