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Howie the Rookie (Barbican Pit)

Tom Vaughan-Lowler makes Mark O'Rowe's play his own

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
© Patrick Redmond

There are one-man plays, and then there's Howie the Rookie. 80 minutes of almost non-stop, fast-paced dialogue is a feat for only a very accomplished actor to undertake.

Thankfully Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is just your man for this stream of consciousness, and gives an intensely focused account of the disastrous dealings between Dublin rivals the Howie, and the Rookie.

Mark O'Rowe's play won a number of prestigious awards when it premiered at the Bush Theatre in 1999, including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and is here directed by O'Rowe.

The Pit serves the piece well, with its wide-open space allowing Vaughan-Lawlor to roam freely as the story is told, his physical presence as taut, supple and expressive as a dancer's.

There's no obvious set, or props, which makes Sinead McKenna's lighting design all the more vital to the success of the production. It looks simple - a band of light stretching the entire length of the back wall, and a bank of spots on either side of the stage. But the subtle shifts of colour and the pools of light and inky darkness create an uneasy, troubling atmosphere that builds steadily alongside the narrative.

Philip Stewart's sound design contributes too, with a repetitive sequence of opening notes that reverberate like a warning before we've even set eyes on the Howie.

Howie and Rookie are both trapped in a fishbowl of local rivalries, just like the local thug's fighting fish. And Rookie's disastrous encounter with this kneecapper unleashes a spiralling horror story.

O'Rowe's play is 10% filth and 90% poetry, with Howie and Rookie both creating vivid images of their limited lives - and even more limited loves. Many of Howie's laughs are at the expense of Avalanche, a woman whose favoured seduction line is: ‘We ridin' tonight?'

But her main crime appears to be weighing 16 stone and wearing ski-pants tight enough to show every crease and crevice. She does also have an unfortunate habit of creeping up on Howie when he's in the gents, but his contempt and scorn for his erstwhile lover carry a dreadful price.

Although the play was originally written as a two-hander, Vaughan-Lawlor makes it entirely his own as a solo performer. However the sheer drive and relentless pace of the narrative suggests the show could potentially be even stronger by once again casting the two characters individually.

Howie the Rookie's climax is full of such outlandish, nightmare images that it almost tips into absurdity, and it takes all of Vaughan-Lawlor's intensity and conviction to carry it off.

O'Rowe's language builds striking pictures – but what appears in your mind's eye may not be a pretty sight.