While I was watching ‘Shoot The Crow’, Baroness Thatcher was co-incidentally celebrating her 80th birthday. Now, I know I have a tendency to mention the ‘Iron Lady’ rather too frequently for the liking of some readers (and I know I risk a deluge of emails in consequence). But there’s a connection between TINA (acronym for Thatcher – ‘There is No Alternative’) and the play I am writing about. Thatcher not only changed considerable aspects of British Society – privatisation of nationalised industries etc. – but she also changed many aspects of ‘work’ itself. Her view that ‘there is no such thing as society’ swept away the power of the trade unions, and left the individual worker adrift in the sea of ‘new capitalism’ she nurtured. Thus, modern workers in Britain have little job security, accepting redundancy, low pay and temporary contracts as a way of life, and largely finding themselves subject to the whim of employers and their desire to make ever-increasing profits. And that’s the lot of the characters in Owen McCafferty’s play, ‘Shoot The Crow’.
Visible on entering the auditorium, the set for the play is a half-completed shower room in a sports complex, or some other public building. The builders’ debris, tools and other paraphernalia tell us someone’s at work here. Once the play gets going, we realise it’s the tiling team. There are four members of it, who together represent (through their ages and responsibilities) the course of a working life. Randolph (played by Packy Lee) is the youngest and harbours dreams of owning a motorbike, Petesy (Conleth Hill) is a kind of foreman who deals with the ‘boss’ and organises the others, Socrates (James Nesbitt) is the philosopher among the group and only wants to take his son to the cinema, and Ding-Dong (played by Jim Norton), is about to depart the tiling business – it’s his last day on the job before he retires, and he’s dreading not having any work to do.
Much of the action takes place in two adjoining locations – the shower room, where the youngest and oldest members of the team work, and the sink area where Petsey and Socrates work. Simon Higlett’s clever design, employing a revolving stage, takes us effortlessly between the two areas, and helps to describe the passing of time during the course of the working day we’re observing.
Essentially, as Petesy (or “Shit-for-brains” as Ding-Ding affectionately calls him) explains, each of the men is only able to keep his “head just above water” thanks to the relatively low pay. And as each has projects requiring financial resources, it’s no wonder that two members of the team find their attention drawn to a particular delivery note that fails to mention a consignment of tiles. The materials thus become the focus of aspirations and plans.
In each of the two acting areas, plots are hatched to purloin the tiles and sell them (to the same third party). Each of the duos are ignorant of the plot being hatched by the other apart from ‘the wee feller’, Randolph, who has to be seconded into Petsey’s plot when it looks like Socrates has absconded. However, since the lunch break sees the appointed time for the theft of the tiles, and since the team are used to taking a few ‘swallies’ (beers) together at that time, the scene is set for some hilarious moments as each of the two groups of potential ‘tea leaves’ (rhyming slang for ‘thieves’) tries to get rid of the others in order to carry out the theft.
The play is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland. But, in a sense, it could be set almost anywhere, because this play is not about the political ‘troubles’ that have plagued the people of Northern Ireland for decades. It’s about honest men, driven reluctantly to consider criminality in order to resolve conflict in their lives. It’s a theme with universal applicability, because it afflicts people in all walks of life, and not just in so-called ‘blue collar’ jobs.
I found it took a while to get into this play, although I’m not quite sure why because it was absorbing from the start. But there was a definite point about half-way through when the whole piece suddenly seemed to ‘lock’ together and make sense, and there was a noticeable increase in the audience’s reaction and interest.
The acting in ‘Shoot The Crow’ is some of the finest you’ll find in London right now. It’s a true ensemble piece, requiring highly emotional and synchronised playing all round. And each of the actors turns-in believable, highly convincing performances, drawing-in the audience to their world and peculiar realities. Although it always seems unfair to single-out characterisations in a small, exceptional cast like this one, James Nesbitt was particularly impressive when talking (and crying about) his father, and Packy Lee’s Randolph was a perceptive description of a naïve apprentice, mystified by a world where loyalty in the end overrides financial gain.
Owen McCafferty’s play is not just about the nature of work, but also about the stages of one’s working life (reflected in the ages of the characters), and what one achieves in the course of it. And it works well on many levels, mainly because it’s provocative whilst being sympathetic. It certainly made both my colleague and I think about our own working lives, and what we’ve achieved in them – lending, I have to admit, a rather sombre tone to the close of our evening! However, I’m not sure the play’s ending was inevitable or essential - it brought a dollop of sentimentality to what otherwise was gritty reality.
‘Shoot the Crow’ is one of the best plays I’ve seen this year. It proves once again (if proof were still needed), that ‘small is beautiful’, and that the quality of a play is not dependent on the amount of cash lavished on it, but on sheer acting talent – oh, and a pretty damn good script to work with too.
And finally, just to show I don’t hold grudges - “happy birthday, TINA!”
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Superficial to its mouldy core, is a dull working-class comedy." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Highly entertaining and at times touching...This is a play that satisfyingly mixes humour, pathos and manifest humanity." MICHAEL COVENEY for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Meandering, tedious short play...You never meet a character or care about them to the point where what they claim on you at the end is important." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "McCafferty combines authenticity of observation with quirky humour, moral toughness and a sympathetic understanding of difficult and, at times, quietly desperate lives. " LYN GARDNER fro THE GUARDIAN says, Is both funny and painful...It's a cracking little show performed with understated flourish."