Shoot the Crow

An early work by Owen McCafferty is given its Northern Irish debut, but has it stood the test of time?

Owen McCafferty's Shoot the Crow, a Belfast-set tale of tilers and repressed male emotion, was written back in 1997, yet surprisingly hasn’t seen the light of day in Northern Ireland until now. In the interim 14 years, it has played around the globe, including, intriguingly, a hit run in Japan.

The premise and the plotting are (as one expects with an Owen McCafferty play) simple. Shoot the Crow is, when all is said and done, an examination of the language of emotional inarticulacy and the unvarnished poetry of the socially impotent.

'Ya know what work is - it's a con - work lets ye think ya can sprint like a gazelle then it straps lead boots roun’ yer plates a meat,' says a bitter Ding Ding near the start of the play. It’s a cutting précis for the bitter truth at the heart of Shoot the Crow - that this is as good as it gets.

Each of the four characters is an archetype of sorts. Ding Ding is an old man reaching the end of his working life with little to show for it; Randolph is the young idealist for whom tiling is a stepping stone for bigger things; and Petesy is the group’s alpha male, who recognises and resents yet is ultimately resigned to the limitations of his social status.

Completing the quartet is the prole-savant, Socrates. He’s a disconcertingly contemplative and earnest man who brings unwelcome unfettered emotion into the (cement) mix, making for moments of awkward comedy.

The discovery of an unaccounted-for pallet of expensive luxury tiles offers a sliver of hope to our quartet and is the catalyst for a sequence of dramatic events that propels Shoot the Crow. It’s the ‘in’ that allows us to examine four lives forced into weird co-existence by the endless cycle of wage slavery.

The stage and unfolding drama is dissected by alternating light and shade between two ‘rooms’. It is framed by bad taste neo-classical high-rise pillars, behind which we can glimpse a vista of an 'exciting' new Belfast. Ciaran Bagnall’s impressive set is central to the efficacy of this production. His bold, stark and suitably alienating space reeks of tasteless affluence in the making.

Here and there are little flashes of the polemical, but it’s the politics of the personal (or in this case impersonal) that rise to the fore. Language, as ever, is the medium that obfuscates communication as much as facilitates it.

Oddly, though, the exchanges often seem stagey and even curiously dated. Sentences stuffed with words like 'napper' and 'Dixie' drift into the middle distant memory. The preponderance and repetition of such phrases fixes the age of the play and dislocates it from its supposed contemporary setting and resonance.

The dialogue is never uninteresting, however, and there are some very sharp linguistic barbs. Yet it’s clear that this is the work of a playwright who was still honing his craft at the time of writing. Compared to the controlled crescendo and slow release of later works, such as The Absence of WomenShoot the Crow could almost be seen as a work in progress.

Fergal McElherron stands out as the convincingly chippy Petesy. His performance throughout injects a badly needed shot of restrained authenticity into the play, keeping things on the right side of blue-collar sentimentality. McCafferty gives Petesy some ostensibly slight but subtly great moments that define his character and his ‘type’ beautifully.

The scene where Petesy matter-of-factly explains that the remaining three are working on after Socrates goes AWOL, and that they’re still splitting the earnings four ways, is more profound than its brevity suggests. 'That’s what’s happening,' he snarls to quiet a dissenting Randolph, revealing more about the complex dynamics of certain types of male relationships than a dozen Channel 4 'documentaries'.

In the end, however, the parts of Shoot the Crow prove to be more impressive than the sum. The uneven pacing of the script means it never quite hangs together as a complete theatrical work. It is a fascinating but flawed production from Prime Cut Productions.

Shoot the Crow runs in the Waterfront Hall until February 19 before touring venues across Northern Ireland. Check out What's On for more information.