Playwright Owen McCafferty resists being labelled a chronicler of working-class life. But he does admit that he focuses on people from his native Belfast whose stories may not otherwise be told on stage.
Shoot the Crow is a lighter affair than Scenes from the Big Picture or Days of Wine and Roses, the last two plays of McCafferty’s seen in London, though it’s no less sympathetic to the daily drudgery of its – yes, working class – characters. In this case four tilers who, despite their hard graft, never seem to get ahead or make good on their modest dreams.
It’s Ding-Ding’s last day before retirement from tiling – and a hoped-for future in window-cleaning. Young Randolph longs to buy a motorbike. Foreman Petesy wants to book his bright daughter’s school trip to France. And Socrates – who’s tormented by the recent separation from his wife and son and the parallels it draws between him and his own absent father – feels responsible for covering bills across both households.
The answer to their desires seems to be an unaccounted-for pile of tiles. If they load them into their van over lunch, their tight-fisted employer will be none the wiser. The complication is that the heist has occurred to both Petesy and Ding-Ding – separately. And, not wanting to share the spoils unnecessarily, they are each looking for just one other partner in crime.
Director Robert Delamere keeps designer Simon Higlett’s revolving stage and the, frankly limited, action on it spinning nicely, allowing us to watch in amusement as, in separate rooms, the rival – and changing – pairs plot to distract and deceive their co-workers. The scene in which they attempt to goad each other into leaving first for lunch is a treat. When this finally leads to violent but therapeutic truth-telling, it packs a punch in more ways than one.
Delamere also wins sterling performances from his foursome. Cold Feet’s James Nesbitt makes an easy transition from screen to stage as Socrates, who talks himself in and out of face-collapsing despondency. His tearful epiphany about his life-of-the-party father – that “there’s a difference between being a character and having character” – is genuinely moving.
As Petesy, a part he played in Shoot the Crow’s 2003 UK premiere at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Conleth Hill proves himself once again to be one of Northern Ireland’s greatest gifts to the London stage over the past five years. Once again, he seems virtually unrecognisable from Stones in His Pockets, Democracy and, most definitely from his cross-dressing turn as Roger De Bris in The Producers - and yet still totally believable.
Jim Norton as the exhausted Ding-Ding and Packy Lee as punching bag Randolph also endear. If I have a disappointment with Shoot the Crow, it’s that the ending comes too suddenly. I would have liked more time with these actors and the finely-drawn characters they inhabit.