The Cavalcaders, Tricycle Theatre, London

A load of old cobblers
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The Independent Culture

It is not, like the scene of Billy Roche's other plays, a pub or a church or a betting-parlour, but the shoe-repair shop in The Cavalcaders is a place where everyone lays his heart out on the counter. The three shoemenders, their friend Josie (a man) and two women from shops across the road are linked in twisted chains of passion and regret that wind through the short scenes of this memory play. Beginning and ending in the present, when the shop is about to close for renovation, the drama flickers back and forth over the past seven years.

Unlike most such shops, though, this unusually spacious and well-staffed one for a small Irish town contains a piano. As the Cavalcaders, the four men are a close-harmony group, and their rehearsals after hours emphasise their intimacy and loneliness. (Not that this play needs any such underlining. The men's recollections of "the old days", when the locals were excited by their singing – "the old ones comin' from the pub wid their glasses in their hands, the little ones skippin' along" – are enough to tip the balance from poignant to lachrymose.)

What breaks up the happy group is, of course, women. Terry, the most complex and troubled character, has been grieving for years for a marriage ruined by his jealousy – neatly conveyed in his remark that one day "she went missing for a few hours'' – and destroyed by his best friend. As a substitute for his wife, he has been sleeping with – and punishing – first Breda, a tart-tongued woman his own age, and Nuala, a soft young girl who says wistfully that she loves him. Terry recognises the apparent gift for the demand it really is: "You say it because you want to hear the word reverberatin' back to you, like you're up in the Alps or somethin'.''

While his workmates, Rory and Ted, have their own woman troubles, Terry also worries that a long-ago misdeed of his and Josie's will come to light.

The Cavalcaders has quite a few good jokes and some moments of painful brutality, but its characteristic sound is harp rather than piano music. Those who can't abide the mournful reverberations and sighs of Irish anguish won't find anything to challenge them here, but admirers of Roche's other plays will enjoy this one's modest but considerable pleasures and overlook the odd contrivance or superficiality. (The young girl, for instance, sounds like an article in a women's magazine.)

One's enjoyment here depends greatly, of course, on the actors, and those in Robin Lefevre's production are as strong as one would expect (Lefevre also directed The Wexford Trilogy, here and in Dublin). Liam Cunningham is a model of repressed, haunted power as Terry; Ingrid Craigie of mature charm as Breda; while Andrew Scott subsumes his sex appeal in the part of the cheerful, boyish Rory.

Roche himself, though, as Josie, seems somewhat out of key with the others, his gestures too actorish and his air a bit too knowing for this play about men who know dangerously little about themselves.

To 9 Feb (020-7328 1000)

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