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A CurtainUp London London Review
Shoot the Crow

A person washes their clothes. They hang them on the radiator to dry. You go round to visit and see the clothes hanging. Is that an exhibition?
Shoot the Crow
Conleth Hill as Petesy and James Nesbitt as Socrates
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
Owen McCafferty's plays have two hallmarks, his fine use of language and his detailed observation of the human condition. Shoot the Crow, takes its title from the nineteenth century Scottish term meaning to leave hastily, with outstanding obligations. It predates Scenes From the Big Picture, his last original play which was shown at the National in 2003, although the Donmar staged his adaptation of Days of Wine and Roses earlier this year. The first ten minutes of Shoot the Crow finds you listening carefully until your ear adapts and the Belfast accents of this quartet of building workers become intelligible. From there McCafferty mines a rich seam of comedy and pathos which repays you many times for the concentration required at the beginning.

Four tilers are working on site when an over-delivery of tiles presents an opportunity to make some extra cash in a not entirely honest way. These men tell us about their families, their hopes and fears and their philosophy of life. They justify the scam with reference to their situation in life, "Is it morally right that we only get paid to keep our heads a few inches above the shit?" says Petesy. It is the measure of McCafferty's writing skill and the magnificent acting that this information emerges in their ordinary conversation while they prepare the grouting and place the tiles.

Simon Higletts' set is circular, revolving to reveal each team of tilers working in two luxury bathrooms, and as the play progresses, we see walls getting more tiles on them. Nothing about this fine comedy seems staged or manipulated. The wit of these men endears them to us; we sympathise with the temptation that crime offers to the poor and we care what happens to them.

These characters are, above all, real. Socrates (James Nesbitt) is separated and seeing his son less frequently. He worries that he may become like his father, who "lost his bottle" and shot the crow leaving Socrates' mother with five children to bring up on her own. Socrates is the sensitive type who will buy a bunch of flowers to decorate the building site, where he is working, to cheer himself up. Petesy (Conleth Hill) is more focussed, inevitably on the necessity to keep his family together and, on top of the bills for his growing children. Randolph (Packy Lee) is a young man with a young man's fancies of fast motorbikes and fast girls. Ding-Ding (Jim Norton) is nearing the end of his working life with the financial insecurity that will bring.

Each pair Ding-Ding and Randolph, and Petesy and Socrates, try to keep the discovery of the spare tiles and the money making scheme it represents from the other pair, to maximise their cut. But the comedy really starts to zing when all four come together and the anger and spite and frustration at the way best laid plans "aft gan aglay" crescendo. The group dynamics double in interest and the repartee is very, very funny. The patter trips off their tongues like submachine gun fire and there are stand-offs all round. The language is graphic and realistic but if you find the "f" word offensive then Shoot the Crow is not for you.

James Nesbitt acts the socks off anyone I've seen on the London stage this year. He glides into his part with an ease that is a blend of natural talent and relaxed approach. I loved the soliloquy, "I hate work. I hate being here day after day with you useless fuckers . . . . You are ruining my life. I hate you for it!" Even as we hear these words in anger, we smile with him at the charm of his venting. Conleth Hill too is very accomplished as the foreman Petesy who uses every manipulative trick in the book to get his own way. He tells Socrates that he needs the money for his little girl's school trip to France in a skilled pitch for sympathy. They critique art, they discuss the merits of Thunderbirds as opposed to Joe 90.

Owen McCafferty has given us brilliant dialogue, Nesbitt and Hill consummate acting and Robert Delamere's direction is of the so skilled variety, it is unobtrusive. The production brims with humour and it is the best comedy I've seen this year.

Written by Owen McCafferty
Directed by Robert Delamere

Starring: James Nesbitt, Conleth Hill
With: Jim Norton and Packy Lee
Design: Simon Higlett
Lighting: Chris Davey
Sound: Martyn Davies
Running time: One hour forty minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking until 10th December 2005
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th October 2005 performance at the Trafalgar Studios Whitehall London SW1 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
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