The political “troubles” have largely passed, leaving in their wake a tense and troubled Belfast populace. That’s the sorrowful starting point of “Scenes From the Big Picture,” Owen McCafferty’s drama that marks a quiet beginning to Nicholas Hytner’s National Theater regime. (The big kickoff comes at the end of the month with “Jerry Springer — The Opera.”) Commendably panoramic in scope, the play seems equally borrowed from countless other, better works and will need every inch of the ceaseless English goodwill toward Irish theater to stay the course.
Peter Gill’s typically precise staging deploys a 21-member cast smoothly across the Cottesloe stage and 43 scenes. And yet, even on that front, one can’t help but feel the shadow of Gill’s superior Cottesloe entry as writer-director, the comparably episodic “Cardiff East,” hovering over the production. Gill’s new play registers as a would-be epic that deserves recognition for wanting to value the private frictions of a publicly riven city, but it ultimately turns into a soap opera with a Northern Irish sound.
Portentously doom-laden one moment, straining for epiphanies the next (from the shooting stars cited at the outset onward), “Scenes” is so busy cueing a response that it more or less preempts any, beyond relief when the younger characters — and the terrific actors playing them — take the stage.
For a while, there’s genuine intrigue in cataloguing the ways in which the narrative shards gradually coalesce. Publican Helen (Michelle Fairley, late of “The Weir”) is having an affair with Joe (Patrick O’Kane), whose wife, Maeve (Aoife McMahon), is desperate for a child. Her urgency to conceive finds her at the hospital at the same time as Betty (June Watson), an aging, ailing shopkeeper whose husband, Sammy (John Normington), finds himself confronting a band of young toughs.
Two of the rogues boast of an assignation with the drug-addled girlfriend (Kathy Kiera Clarke) of the dealer who gives Betty a ride to the hospital, while Helen pours booze for two feuding brothers discovering — to their dismay — their father’s gun-fueled past, though on whose side, Catholic or Protestant, we are never told.
The interconnectedness is fun, up to a point, after which an inescapable awareness of the plot’s own labor pains kicks in. Several of the stories don’t begin to deserve the amount of time devoted to them, beginning with the mawkishly expressed rift between a couple — one a careerist businesswoman (Frances Tomelty), the other a bereft roofer (Dermot Crowley) — who at last discover the body of a son who has been missing for 15 years. While one applauds McCafferty’s desire to do justice by the human beings behind the headlines, he’s not helped by a bald-faced tendency in the writing that leaves you bristling — to wit, abattoir worker Joe’s belief that the Belfast citizenry have as much control as “the lumps of dead meat that we carry around.”
Even given the Irish gift for expressive gab, one has trouble sanctioning former hard man Bobbie (Ron Donachie), who wants a better life for his son as well as a return to “this morning, when the world was a clearer place.” “Scenes,” for its part, is infinitely better off when catching its characters on the lam, more often than not in the company of its most youthful quartet, among whom the laddish Cooper (Gerard Jordan) proves yet again the ongoing dramatic potency of being one of life’s tearaways. (His commentary on the relevance — or not — of most American movies prompts the drollest writing of the play.)
In contrast to the Republican colors of the Belfast cityscape at the rear of Alison Chitty’s set, the action unfolds amid a largely purple wash, the cast present throughout in the front row, rising to enact their scenes as needed. One of this country’s best directors of actors, Gill falters with those senior members of the ensemble (Karl Johnson and Eileen Pollock, especially) who succumb to terminal staginess. Bucking that trend: Harry Towb, who cuts a gently rending presence as a widower who has stopped smoking but will never sour on Belfast: “There’s worse places than this,” he decides.
A fresh-faced honesty all its own accompanies every gesture of those younger actors (Jordan, Darren Healy, Elaine Cassidy) playing a more nihilistic and confused generation in thrall to cheap thrills and to the growing chasm between the star-spangled sky on which the play rather tritely closes and their own sorry, starless lives.