Howie the Rookie
Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington
Mark O'Rowe's celebrated play is revived at the Old Red Lion on the 10th anniversary of its premiere at the Bush. This is a play that suits small spaces, in which we can feel its energy straining the walls. In this case, in Nicola Dobrowolski's effective design the back wall is literally cracking under the pressure, while litter such as dirt, bricks, sweet wrappers and tin cans hugs the walls, the convincing debris of street life.
This two-hander follows the trials of two young Dublin men, Howie Lee and Rookie Lee. Not brothers, just namesakes. I paused a moment searching for the word for their activities, my mind automatically going for antics, japes, escapades - of course, it's an ingrained stereotype I'm having to resist, the cheeky gobby Irish scrapper. O'Rowe seeks to both celebrate that stereotype and implode it - and does so marvellously well.
The characters take half of the play each to speak, while the other dumbly follows their journey, acting out in mime the various characters met along the way. So firstly Howie takes us through his night spent joining his friends in tracking down and battering the Rookie, for a supposed wrong. We then follow Rookie the next day, nursing his wounds but more occupied with raising cash for the more serious problem of having displeased the chief local gangster. The bare bones of the plot don't sound like much, but it is given weight by the ferocious, inimitable language. In many ways the language is the story - catapulting us right into the broil of Dublin street culture, and daring us to try to find in these flaming, rapid-fire tales anything banal. Howie's mate's overweight sister has drawn the nickname Avalanche. Howie speaks lovingly of the "poundage - stonage - hell, tonnage" of her; her favoured seduction line is "come into my room, and come into my womb." There are dozens of these groanworthy moments: shocking, visceral and hugely funny.
Without giving too much away, a tragedy makes allies of Howie and Rookie, and Howie ends up having a bloody showdown with the gangster on Rookie's behalf. Johnny Vivash as Howie does wonders here in the now-silent part: conveying the empty, doleful-eyed aggression of the man who simply can't think of anything to do but fight. Both he and Kieran Gough give wired physical performances, dancing around each other in various guises of friend or foe. But Vivash in particular hurtles himself around the stage with impressive force, one minute raining punches on an invisible assailant, the next whiplashed into a headlock by him. On the empty stage it's as if he's besieged by demons. It's the uselessness and aimlessness of aggression that O'Rowe is getting at, and nothing says it more effectively than a man fighting the air.
There's a fatalistic tone to the play too: Rookie having recurring visions of what he believes to be the modern Dublin equivalent of "Mayan gods of death", coming to claim one of the two. This superstitious element more or less fits with the heightened reality of the action; and primarily it drums home the sense of time running out and plans unravelling - fitting for this murkily-lit, lightning-fast, slippery play.
So the piece both revels in and undercuts the emblem of Irish fighting spirit. Does this make it buckle under its own contradictions? No, because the mess, the ambiguity, the rapid about-turns and slaps in the face, are all a part of it. It's life.
Until 4th April
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury