The 1999 Mark O’Rowe play Howie the Rookie was written as a two-hander, but the writer decided on a different version not long ago, which is now at the Barbican’s Pit for a limited run. One person only (an excellent Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in this case) now tells the whole tale and the characters of the Howie and the Rookie are divided by not more than a change of t-shirt. Their heavy Dublin accents are nearly identical and so are their ways of life in this thrilling monologue; by the end they have melted together so strongly you see the point of rehashing the writing easily. O’Rowe’s new adaptation works wonderfully well.
The story takes place in the Dublin underworld, where colourful characters tumble over one another in a big feast of sex, violence, vengeance and scabies. The recurring figure of Avalanche is especially grotesque, a fat girl wearing ski pants whose sexual advances the protagonist invites, then wards off as he pleases. The sudden vulgarity of some of the descriptions works as pitch-black humour against what is really a grim story about a hopeless and desperate existence between wild nights out and daytime responsibilities. Fuelled by a debt incurred to the psychotic Ladyboy whose fighting fish he killed, the Rookie wanders off into the streets to get the funds together – this ends in tragedy. The lightness of the Howie’s narration, in the first part of the show, is tainted by the death of a boy. In this play, horrible events are always waiting around the corner, and it conveys the edginess of a life lived in the margins of society.
Paul Wills’s minimal set design uses a band of light in the background that slowly changes hue, while Philip Stewart’s sound design creates an atmosphere of a cold, industrial urban cityscape. O’Rowe directs his own work with Vaughan-Lawlor as the medium, filled to the brim with a muscular physicality and equipped with a kind of elasticity in his movements allowing him to be both childlike and seriously dangerous at the same time. Dressed in skinny jeans and trainers, he slides across the empty space opening doors, riding buses, fighting and fornicating with complete conviction and he has the audience on the edge of their seats for all of it.
Howie the Rookie is a fast-paced and ultimately very dark ride through the dimly lit streets of Dublin, but most of all a thrilling performance by an extremely talented actor.
Howie the Rookie is playing The Pit until 29 November. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican website. Photo by Patrick Redmond.