Shoot the Crow, Trafalgar Studios, London

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The Independent Culture

Robert Delamere's production is winningly scruffy and busy, performed on a revolve. Hill's pony-tailed, beer-bellied Petesy and his grout-splattered gang have been contracted to put the finishing touches to some posh fitness club. Hill and Norton are preparing the walls with their square-notched trowels while the new lad, Packy Lee's Randolph, is scrubbing the floor and James Nesbitt's depressed Socrates is sponging round the sinks - or were they designer urinals? Plastic sheeting still surrounds the showers' gleaming chrome riser-rails - an ironic accessory given that these labourers are stuck on the bottom of the social ladder.

Their profiteering boss, who never shows his face, is manipulatively slave-driving them all, even Norton's weary Ding-Ding who's supposed to be celebrating his retirement but ends up, with the rest, on enforced overtime. That also puts paid to their planned theft of a load of spare tiles just to pay their ex-wives' household bills, send a promising kid on a French exchange or, in the case of young Randolph, buy a dream motorbike and escape this daily grind.

Truth be told, it is somewhat surprising that such a crack troupe are devoting their energies to this nice but hardly amazing chamber piece. Shoot the Crow was penned before McCafferty's recent NT hits - Closing Time and Scenes from the Big Picture - and its set-up and thematic interest in mutual exploitation are distinctly reminiscent of Jimmy Murphy's work play, Brothers of the Brush (1993). The plot developments are a tad schematic and slow, Nesbitt (from Cold Feet) slightly milks his sob-story, and blokes jawing about soccer to avoid heart-to-hearts is a well-worn joke.

Nonetheless, Socrates' discontented philosophising about being stuck in a rut, in his professional and private life, is bound to speak for many people. McCafferty is sharp on how underdogs have their own dogsbodies as well as complex codes of respect and support when it's really needed. This dramatist has humane warmth and a lovely ear for chat. The intended heist is enjoyably farcical, with divisive scheming in pairs, and most of the acting is a joy. As ever, Hill is superb, with an unsettling sly streak and a hint of Oliver Hardy getting exasperated. Norton is splendid too, looking like a silver-haired imp but with that startlingly dignified, rich bass voice. Lee is also one to watch, irresistibly funny when he develops nervous jitters like a pneumatic drill. One just hopes this will be enough to leave the Trafalgar Studios - a plucky conversion of the West End's old Whitehall Theatre - quids in.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

Booking to 10 December, 0870 060 6632

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