Howie the Rookie
The Pit, Barbican
Until November 29
★★★ (out of five)
“90 per cent Irish,” says the Dub behind me as he and his wife settle into their seats at the sold-out first night of Howie the Rookie’s 10-night run in the Barbican’s subterranean Pit theatre.
The man is referring to the crowd, and he’s right, it’s predominately Irish (with a sprinkling of stardust in the form of the genetically blessed acting family Jeremy Irons, Sinéad Cusack and Max Irons).
“You can tell just by the look of them,” adds the man behind, folding his coat over his knees. Really?
There’s no time to reflect on whether you can spot an Irish person on sight, because the lights go down and from the first second to the last breath of the 85-minute physical and verbal assault of a one-man play there is no time for anything other than engrossment.
Written in 1999 by Tallaght-born Mark O’Rowe (he of Intermission fame) Howie the Rookie was intended as a two-man show, but who needs two actors when you can have one Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.
Vaughan-Lawlor, who became a household name in Ireland and bagged himself a Best Actor IFTA for his portrayal of Nidge in the gangland drama Love/Hate, is awesome to watch.
It’s clear he is the big draw. The play has already enjoyed an extended run at the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, runs in Cork and Galway, now London, and next to BAM in New York.
It starts with Vaughan-Lawlor as Howie Lee and ends with him playing a second very similar character (they even share a name) - Rookie Lee.
In fact, all the men in the play (described but never seen) are cut from the same cloth. They are low lifes, ‘scumbags’, fast talkers, street smart with razor sharp wit, but with not much upstairs (two of the characters get scabies and walk around for days in torment but never think to go to a doctor or chemist).
Their relationships with their families are in tatters, they have zero emotional intelligence or awareness. They beat up a kid with Down ’s syndrome. When they have feelings, they suppress them by drinking, fighting or f***ing. There are ‘tool’ and ‘flute’ jokes aplenty.
Women are there to be fancied or not (but shown a good time anyway) whether it’s a sexy ‘blondie’ single mum down the pub or ‘The Avalanche’, a grotesquely overweight girl with a love of white ski pants and approaching men from behind while they are urinating. Thin or fat, the girls are all up for it, because y’know girls who work in Spar are easy, and posh girls are prudes.
The setting is inner city Dublin – depicted as Ireland’s answer to Wild West- utterly chaotic and lawless. The dialogue is a fusion of fast-flying rap poetry and prose and screaming spit-flying rants.
It’s got a bit of Beckett, a dollop of Enda Walsh-style mad cap, blacker than black humour and a bite of Ulysses Cyclops chapter, but at times it all feels more like a dose of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock with clichés as hackneyed as a gangster with a scar over one eye or a cowboy with a straw hanging off his lip.
There is no intermission, just a moment’s darkness to allow for a change of T-shirt before it all takes off again, from the ladies’ man Rookie Lee’s perspective. He owes money to a vicious crook who threatens to shoot him in the knees over some fish. At just over an hour and 20 minutes, Vaughan-Lawlor never wavers, not once, not a single slip even as the play fires towards a violent and dramatic ending.
The scores are in. I’m going against the grain here; Howie the Rookie has had nothing but emphatically positive reviews, nothing below four stars, but mainly fives. The acting is deserving of a full house, the writing is poetry, furious fun - clipped, flipped and whipped into shape without losing any of its muscle.
But ultimately the play is a letdown for one reason alone, it trots out the same old class stereotypes, and then fails to challenge them.
Howie the Rookie at The Pit, Barbican until November 29