Michael Portillo - Life's work

Theatre - Labourers' dreams of escape falter in a brilliant tragicomedy, writes Michael Portillo

Halfway through your life, you sit up and think, "How did I get here?" You cannot remember what road you took. As the playwright Owen McCafferty puts it, "You haven't really participated in half the shit that happens to you."

In Shoot the Crow, four tilers working on a building site in Belfast represent four ages of a working man's life. Ding-Ding has reached his last day before retirement and has received a handwritten note from the boss - but nothing else - to mark his lifetime of graft. Randolph is a young lad, obsessed with buying a motorbike if he could just put aside some readies. As Ding-Ding observes in his first line in the play, the boy knows "fuck all about fuck all".

Ding-Ding has nothing in his life beyond work. Having "free time's no good when you're not used to it: it fucks you up". He plans to become a window cleaner. Randolph can see that his workmates have achieved nothing. A bike could make him a Phileas Fogg, adventuring around the world. But we know that he will not escape. He will dream on until, like Ding-Ding, he reaches his retirement day.

Socrates is, as you might guess, the workmate who ruminates on the question of which road he took to arrive where he is. According to the others, "his head's away". Today, on the way in, he spotted an old schoolmate who now needs four tins (of booze) to sort himself out in the morning. How did it come to that? Socrates has done little better. He has followed in his dad's footsteps by walking out on his family. It dawns on him that there are things in life that are more important than work.

Petesy is the more practical man-in-charge. For him, work is a means to an end. He has kept his family together, so he has not done as badly as Socrates. He keeps dreams at bay. Maybe he has imbibed Ding-Ding's precept that "thinking about something, unless you do it, will fuck you up". But Petesy is a tough guy with a soft centre. He longs to do the right thing for his teenage daughter. She has the opportunity to go abroad on a school trip, and maybe make something of her life.

All four have particular reasons why a few "squid" would come in handy just now. The boy could buy that bike, and the old man a window cleaner's round. Socrates could live up to his duties as a husband and father, and Petesy could pay for the school excursion. Fate offers each of them a quick-fix solution. The play hinges on how they balance temptation with the obligations of friendship.

If escape from the drudgery of their working lives were possible, these men would surely have found the way out long ago. As their hopes rise to a cres-cendo, you sense that nothing lies ahead but more disappointment. It may be their daily ritual to steel themselves to commit the deed that will end their troubles, but each day begins much like the one before.

The script of Shoot the Crow is beautifully written. McCafferty brilliantly captures the things that real people say. But he elevates the dialogue above the real. His characters are stylised. They repeat themselves in pleasing verbal patterns almost as though they were involved in a liturgy. Their conversations are often banal, but never unintelligent. There is hardly a sentence without an obscenity, yet the men are far from inarticulate. In a moment, they shift from football to discussing what makes art and how you could define an art exhibition. If you visit someone's house and they have laid out their clothes to dry on the radiators, is that an exhibition? Who is to judge that question: the viewer or the "exhibitor"?

All four performances are excellent. Packy Lee plays the youngster. His character has absorbed all the daily routines of his workmates, but his soul has not yet been crushed. Randolph is the only role that ventures close to farce. In an attempt to escape the daily grind, he invents a series of improbable maladies. Lee handles the visual comedy nicely.

Jim Norton plays Ding-Ding as disillusionment in human form. He survives only by keeping emotion at bay. Socrates (James Nesbitt) breaks that code by exposing all the wounds inflicted on his psyche. It makes him the most interesting of the characters, and maybe the one for whom, at the play's end, we have at least a little hope. Conleth Hill switches skilfully between Petesy's authoritarianism and his vulnerability.

Shoot the Crow was previously produced in Galway and Manchester. Thank goodness it has reached the West End. Slick direction from Robert Delamere ensures a pacy delivery and produces real tension as the moment of temptation nears. Tragedy is poignantly juxtaposed with comedy.

It is a while since I enjoyed a night at the theatre half as much as this.

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