Trafalgar Studios, London SW1
Opened 11 October, 2005

Owen McCafferty's last original play, Scenes From The Big Picture, achieved the grand slam of winning every major London playwriting award available. Actor Conleth Hill is finally becoming as well known as he deserves to be after a protean West End career taking in Stones In His Pockets, Michael Frayn's Democracy and playing transvestite director Roger DeBris in The Producers. Jim Norton is an old master of an actor, forever associated with the plays of Conor McPherson. But the name that will bring crossover audiences into McCafferty's tale of four tilers on a building job in Belfast is that of James Nesbitt, familiar to screen audiences from TV series Cold Feet and everything from Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday film to a series of commercials for the yellow pages.

Nesbitt's performance here as Socrates (so called because, comparatively speaking, he's a bit of a thinker) is much of the stripe we're familiar with from his screen work. He's a clever enough actor to make his characters seem appealingly blunt without rendering them stupid. Once or twice, though, he overestimates the extra amount of oomph needed for this theatre; one normally wouldn't notice, except that he's beside the unobtrusively masterly Hill as gruff foreman Petesy and Norton's consummate less-is-more skill as Ding-Ding, whose last day before retirement this is. Ding-Ding hatches a plan to steal a consignment of tiles, and enlists menial apprentice Randolph (played by the exuberant Packy Lee) to help him. Meanwhile, in the next room, great minds... or at least Petesy's and Socrates'... are thinking alike.

Over the course of a single day, represented in 90 minutes of continuous playing time, we follow the quartet's various plans. But it's not the theft that's at the core of things. Rather, McCafferty is writing about the men's lives: where each of them is today, how he got there, where he wants to go and by what route. As usual in his plays, no grand destinations are ever reached (indeed, this one even has a quite unnecessary final scene to rub the point in); what is unwonted is the amount of humour overlaid on such musings. He gives full rein to the effervescence of the slightly heightened Belfast argot in which he writes, and Robert Delamere's deft production matches the blend of comedy and contemplation.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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