Saturday 17 March 2018

Howie the Rookie: Tom's one-man tour de force

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Howie the Rookie written and directed by Mark O'Rowe.
Photo: Patrick Redmond
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Howie the Rookie written and directed by Mark O'Rowe. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Emer O'Kelly

It all starts out pretty innocently, at least in urban violence terms. The Howie Lee is called on to join a little team to give a friendly beating to The Rookie Lee (no relation.)

Making the call is Peaches, who is writhing under a severe case of scabies, caught, he believes, from sleeping on a mattress previously in use by The Rookie. And The Rookie doesn't have a problem with that, walking away with a bit of a split lip, a half-blinded eye, and a few bruised ribs, still feeling cocky. It's the way of their Dublin street world in 1999.

Except there are other problems. The Howie is supposed to be baby-sitting his five-year-old adored brother, The Mousie, when he responds to the call. And The Rookie may be relaxed about the beating at the hands of the Peaches group, who are, after all, his friends; but he owes blood money to Ladyboy, a psychotic making amends for the inadequacies suggested by his nickname, by a mindless reign of terror that allows no quarter. And Ladyboy is an entirely different kettle of violence. So, it emerges, is Peaches.

Mark O'Rowe's extraordinary double monologue play Howie the Rookie is 14 years old, but has lost none of its terrifying power and none of its viciously vile, corruscating wit. It drives you to the depths of humanity's horror, then stops your stomach churning by demanding that you laugh.

It is, quite simply, Greek in its power of catharsis while piling laughter on top of the emotional draining of vicarious violence. And when The Howie Lee makes his final reparation, watched by The Rookie Lee, who must live on, we know that Euripides would be proud to call Mark O'Rowe a brother in art.

Landmark have mounted a new production of the play (at Project in Dublin, and touring to Everyman in Cork, the Galway Arts Festival, and later to the Edinburgh Fringe) with the magnificent Tom Vaughan-Lawlor playing both parts. And when he enters in silhouette for the second half as The Rookie, his body is already a new character. It's called acting of extraordinary quality. Mark O'Rowe directs, with equally devastating restraint, in a spare empty set by Paul Wills, hauntingly lit by Sinead McKenna.


Alan O'Regan's Snake Oil doesn't deserve to be good: the premises on which the characters appear to operate are a joke; nobody could fall for them. And we've seen scam and counter-scam so many times before as a basis for comedy that there's nothing new under the sun, theatrically speaking. But it IS good: it grabs, involves, and keeps its audience.

That may be because O'Regan writes with intelligence, and apparently from an old-fashioned informed mind that he's not afraid to display. It makes for interesting and involved dialogue, always a plus.

So, as an in-house lunch-time production at Theatreupstairs at Lanigan's Bar on Eden Quay in Dublin, it's good crack and good value. It also has considerable merit in its production values, acting, and directing. Gemma Doorly keeps her cast of three credibly together, while the "veteran" Raymond Keane as sorrowing middle-aged businessman Ed is a smooth foil for Ciara O'Callaghan's glamorous good-time girl, Shell, apparently down on her luck. Gerard Adlum as the scruff-ball oddity in the trio, lounging through the day in his flat as a PhD student (again apparently) may seem to convince his adversary within the plot, but his acting is less convincing. There probably is talent in there, but he needs to come up to scratch with some technique: he seems extremely uncomfortable in his skin.

The set, costume, and lighting by a team of Laura Honan, Sinead Kelly, and Karl Shiels, are effective and impressive for the tiny space, and there's some admirably tricky set-changing carried out with a smooth edge.

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