Trafalgar Studios, London, 28 Sept – 10 Dec 2005
The day that Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for literature may not have been the best to see any play in London. Most contemporary theatre cannot match Pinter, and “Shoot the Crow” is no “Birthday Party,” “Homecoming,” “Hothouse” or “Lover.” That does not mean that “Shoot the Crow” is a bad play. It is a good play, and its four actors carry the evening with bravado performances.
The tale of four Northern Irish tilers on a building site contains all the pathos one would seek in an evening’s entertainment. The script has as many laughs as tears. Owen McCafferty, whose ear for Northern Irish argot is as sharp as Pinter’s for silent menace, does not bore. He portrays four workingmen, lost in a shrinking world of work and obligations that keep them working, as prisoners of their age, their class and their pitiful hopes. You cannot walk out on these men, and you wish them well even as they plot a petty crime for a little extra money. It is hard sometimes to know – and McCafferty does not want us to know – whether Randolph, the youngest tiler on the site (played with aplomb by Packy Lee), is any more hopeless than the oldest, cynical Ding-Ding (well acted by Jim Norton). Drawn against his inclination to help two different workmates commit the same crime, Randolph lacks the self-awareness to understand that his life might be Ding-Ding’s – albeit years behind.
The ninety minutes without an interval go quickly, thanks largely to McCafferty’s lively use of language, his clever sequencing of jokes amid hopelessness and direction that does not allow for lulls. Taking place in the tragic space of a day, we see four men raise their hopes, imagine the possibility of making something for themselves and, by nightfall, surrender to the wretched fate of slaves. If they are redeemed, it is in this: despite anger and fights, friendship or common fate breeds a solidarity that makes the worst of the men – the miserable Petesy (played by the excellent Conleth Hill) – cover for a friend who skives in order to visit his son.
“Shoot the Crow” is also about fathers and sons, explicitly so in the case of the fourth tiler, Socrates (James Nesbitt, whose performance is exemplary). Socrates weeps in front of old Ding-Ding, who has no patience for a man’s tears, as he recalls his own father. Socrates’s “old man” was a bit of a character, holding court at the bar and telling the grand story. As a boy, Socrates was proud to be his son. Proud to see himself as the boy of a man whose back everyone patted. “There is a difference between being a character and having character,” Socrates tells Ding-Ding, explaining how he came to see his father in a clearer light. Now a father himself, he has – as his father did – left his wife and child. Unable to comprehend his repetition of this abandonment, he weeps. “My dad fucks off, and I fuck off.” Ding-Ding won’t listen, until later in the play he too breaks down in futility. The father and son theme plays on between Ding-Ding and young Randolph, the latter clearly yearning for a surrogate father – a role Ding-Ding could no more assume than Socrates’s father did. Ding-DOng is too worried – as the other characters are for most of the play, and as many fathers are everywhere – about himself.
This play lacks the thoughtful silences of Pinter, as well as the force of power unmasking itself. Pinter never entertains, but you leave his plays thinking. McCafferty can entertain, and “Shoot the Crow” is worth seeing. But it will not disturb your sleep.