Howie the Rookie hasn't been seen in London since its award-winning 1999 premiere at the Bush, and it makes a welcome return at the Old Red Lion in this neatly choreographed production directed by Benet Catty.
A play of two adrenaline-packed halves, the first narrated by Howie (Johnny Vivash), the second by 'the Rookie' (Kieran Gough) – two down-and-outs united by a surname (Lee) – it's easy to see why Mark O'Rowe's drama made such a splash a decade ago. Themes of vengeance, violence, masculinity and atonement are played out in the back streets of Dublin, richly evoked through its strong vernacular (at times indecipherable) and sharp observations of life on the other side of the tracks. There are echoes of everything from Joyce to Tarantino.
The Howie and the Rookie are both wanted men – the Howie for sleeping with the gargantuan sister (the 'Avalanche') of one of his best mates, the handsome Rookie for inadvertently spreading scabies through a series of sexual conquests. Both are connected to the mysterious death of two Siamese fighting fish belonging to a local gangster called Ladyboy. The Howie becomes a guardian angel for his namesake, and his climactic encounter with Ladyboy is an exquisitely described passage of narration.
Catty's production is played out on the simplest of sets, a metal bench the only notable feature. But with its detailed soundscape and noirish lighting, it conveys the requisite level of gutter dinginess and eeriness that make this a wholly visceral experience.
As Howie, Johnny Vivash has the right combination of quiet menace and world-weariness, nicely counterbalanced by Kieran Gough's innocent and cheeky charm as the Rookie. Both deliver their twisting, epithet-littered monologues with admirable slickness and humour.