Existential angst hangs heavily over the “craic” animating “Shoot the Crow,” the overwritten Owen McCafferty play currently receiving an ace London premiere. A portrait of four Belfast tilers at the end of their tether, Robert Delamere’s production makes up in sheer amiability what it lacks in authorial elan. The presence of popular U.K. TV name James Nesbitt (“Cold Feet”) should ensure brisk biz during the 10-week run, even if it is co-star Conleth Hill who tops a crisp ensemble with yet another delicious turn.
First seen in Galway in 1997 and then Manchester six years later, play actually precedes McCafferty’s National Theater hit “Scenes From a Big Picture,” as well as his fine “Days of Wine and Roses” adaptation for the Donmar earlier this year. Part of an ongoing Anglo-Irish series of “work plays” set against the carrying out of a particular job, “Shoot the Crow” has an inexplicable title but a familiar arc. Throw four men of varying ages and comparable dreams together, and before long they will start talking like philosophes: contemplative souls with, in this instance, thick Northern Irish accents.
Unsuspecting playgoers shouldn’t worry if they find the show’s first 20 minutes passing them right by. Youngest performer Lee, a supremely likable imp, dominates the early phases with a brogue that will be hard for non-Celtic ears to decipher. But once his senior colleagues chime in, the language almost always lands — along with a realization that we’ve traveled this pained and ruminative road before.
Among English writers, Richard Bean (“Harvest”) is just one dramatist who has written similar plays without a trace of authorial grandstanding. Not so here: Scarcely has the grandly named Socrates (Nesbitt) entered the verbal fray before he’s posing the sort of portentous debate with himself that tends to stop a play cold. “How the fuck did I get here?”, he asks, and the question has nothing to do with his bus route that day.
Separated from his wife and wanting to be more to his young son than his own father was to him, Socrates soon is spilling all. “Do you ever just sit down and cry?” he asks Ding-Ding (Jim Norton), the senior member of the quartet, who is facing the bleak prospect in his advancing years of “fuck-all, squared.” Before long, out pour Socrates’ tears in a lachrymose sequence not even the ever-likable Nesbitt can fully overcome.
Such passages protrude like telltale plaster amid such a milieu, not least because McCafferty is entirely at home with contrasting passages that find trenchant detail in the quotidian. “Don’t think, do,” Socrates later tells Ding-Ding, and the play is best when it follows that course.
When the men are going about their jobs, trading notes on the sanctity of one’s “cuppa” (as in tea), “Shoot the Crow” shoots the breeze just fine. And when it pauses to embellish? Chances are you’ll be sufficiently taken in to allow this company an occasionally creaky passage. (The worst, unfortunately, comes at the very end.)
United in their desire for something better (even if they’re not sure what), the men emerge as individuals in the actors’ adroit hands. Conor McPherson vet Norton brings that rumbling timbre to a parable of honesty that finds Ding-Ding the one most committed to playing by the “rules.” The actor’s innate warmth helps temper a staging that isn’t exactly short on high spirits, and he and Lee make engaging occupants of twin points on a vast spectrum of ambition still waiting to be realized: Randolph hankers after a motorbike, while Ding-Ding thinks window-cleaning might be his best career option late in life.
Nesbitt’s sparkling eyes set Socrates apart from the pack and at the same time confirm what it is the small screen responds to in this actor. Playing the mastermind of a would-be theft that exists to go awry, he puts a moving face on familial pressures many will recognize. And it is Socrates who sneaks in an explanation of what must be the most puzzling English-lingo title since David Mamet wrote “Speed-the-Plow.”
Hill, meanwhile, is once again a wonder, playing both the wiliest and warmest of the laborers. Thesp cut his protean teeth on “Stones in His Pockets,” only now to show unexpected depths as a paunchy bloke with one eye on the main chance and another on the lesson in loyalty that this play finally is.
Hair pulled back in a ponytail, Hill is mesmerizing to watch as he tiles various panels of Simon Higlett’s turntable set. But when the tables are themselves turned, Hill’s Petesy makes a poignant case for still doing the decent thing. Where will life point him next? Who’s to say, but I’d hire any of these guys in a minute.