One of the hardest things about being a drama critic, at least for me, is that so many plays stubbornly resist categorisation — and Shoot the Crow by the Northern Irish writer Owen McCafferty is a prime example. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Is it a proper, grown-up piece that wants to be taken seriously or a commercial production designed to put bums on seats? Is it high art or low entertainment?
It starts off as a fairly conventional West End comedy. We’re introduced to two pairs of Irish builders, one pair played by Conleth Hill and James Nesbitt, the other by Packy Lee and Jim Norton. The plot is set in motion when each pair decides to steal an unrecorded shipment of tiles from under the other pair’s noses. None of the four is particularly bright, and only one could be described as young, so the stage is set for a series of farcical scenes, no doubt concluding with all of them ending up with nothing.
Yet no sooner has the play settled into this well-worn groove than it veers off in another direction. Socrates, the character played by James Nesbitt, buttonholes one of his workmates and pours his heart out to him, telling him about his charming but irresponsible father — ‘I worked out that there’s a difference between being a character and having character’ — and his fear that the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree. It’s quite a long speech and Nesbitt manages to invest it with such emotional power that it totally alters the trajectory of the play. Suddenly, Shoot the Crow is no longer just a comedy; it’s a meditation on what we make of our lives and the various yardsticks we use to determine whether we’re a success or a failure.
At times, the play’s shifts from one mood to the next are a little too abrupt, but on the whole Shoot the Crow manages to contain its disparate elements very successfully. This is partly down to McCafferty’s skill as a dramatist — and the director, Robert Delamere, deserves credit for the skilful way in which he’s choreographed the action around a large, rotating disc with a different set on each side. (The fluid transitions between the scenes help smooth over the play’s rough edges.) But, above all, it’s attributable to the skill of the actors. The entire cast is outstanding, able to make the play’s lightning shifts in tone seem quite plausible. The changes of mood appear to flow, organically, from the characters as each of them switches back and forth — sometimes in the space of a few seconds — between optimism and despair. Shoot the Crow isn’t quite Chekhov, who famously described his plays as ‘comedies’, but it’s an absorbing, expertly realised piece of work.
What We Did to Weinstein, a new play by a writer called Ryan Craig, is much more straightforward. It opens in the present, with an Israeli interrogator trying to establish what happened when one of his fellow soldiers — Josh — apprehended a Palestinian who’s suspected of being the mastermind behind a recent suicide bombing. It then flashes back eight years, with Josh visiting his dying father in a London hospital, and after that the action flits between the two time periods, as well as various moments in the intervening years.
From a purely structural point of view, What We Did to Weinstein is extremely well put together, unfolding its non-linear narrative with impressive skill. But this formal sophistication cannot disguise the fact that it deals with its incredibly complex subject-matter — not just the Arab–Israeli conflict, but also the clash between Western values and Islamic fundamentalism — in a rather simple-minded, over-schematic way. According to the programme notes, Craig has written for a variety of long-running television series, including Hollyoaks, Mile High and Dream Team, and What We Did to Weinstein has a slightly soapy feel to it, with crudely drawn characters and a clear moral at the end. At times, it’s almost as if it’s designed for earnest, civic-minded teachers to take Sixth Formers to.
Still, it has its moments. There’s a genuinely frightening scene in which a second-generation Pakistani immigrant — played by Pushpinder Chani — terrorises his Westernised sister, threatening to beat her if she leaves the house to keep an assignation with a white boy. ‘This is our destiny,’ he tells her, trying to explain his recent embrace of Islam. ‘This is Allah’s fury. It’s been coming and it’s unstoppable.’ He then begins to repeat what, to my ear, sounded like an actual Jihadist chant: ‘Me against my brother! Me and my brother against our cousins! Me, my brother and my cousins against the world!’ It’s eerily up-to-date, as if Craig is writing specifically about one of the apparently nice young men who blew themselves up on the Tube last July.
What We Did to Weinstein is playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory and if its breathless topicality becomes a little too much you can always pop into the restaurant during the interval. The brownies are absolutely sublime.