The Old Fitz and Howie the Rookie are a match made in theatrical heaven. The scrappy black box theatre in the belly of a beloved pub seems like exactly the right place for Mark O’Rowe’s rough-as-guts tandem monologues exploring a violent Dublin underworld – a play with its fists up to protect any traces of remaining soft hearts.
Howie the Rookie is winding and relentless, the kind of play that starts gathering speed and refuses to stop until the impact of stillness, when it finally comes, will rattle its audience. It’s told first from The Howie Lee’s (Andrew Henry) perspective, before it’s picked up by The Rookie Lee (Sean Hawkins). They are men who share a name but are still trying to make a name for themselves in their convoluted world, men who fight and fuck in the name of a questionable sense of honour and seem at first untouchable, but of course they are not.
Their life of crime and carelessness comes to a terrifying head after, of all things, a mutual acquaintance has to burn his spare mattress. It’s infested with scabies, and someone has to pay for this inconvenience. And as if that isn’t enough, there’s a problem with a gang boss’s pet fish. It sounds ludicrous but the stakes scale up until an unfathomable, terrifying end.
Now in a return season hosted by a company – Red Line Productions – that has become well known for exploring the complicated concept of modern masculinity, Howie the Rookie stands out for its elegantly framed bluntness. The bluntness comes from the script, from Henry’s great, calloused performance and Hawkins’ just as remarkable anguine uncoiling, and the unflinching ways they each meet their unstoppable ends.
The elegance comes from Luke Cowling and Toby Schmitz’s direction, and it’s deliciously unsettling: an artist’s take on a story that rejects the curlicues and affectations of deliberate artistry. Cowling and Schmitz tackle the play like it’s poetry, movements rising and falling with the script’s deft, gripping cadence. Their sole indulgence of theatrical showmanship is perfectly timed. The Howie Lee trips over, and in his shame and frustrations, kicks a pile of coins. They hang in the air and the black blankness of the space in a shimmering arc, beautiful and shocking. It doesn’t seem to mean anything at the time – such a big reaction to such a small moment – but the beauty and momentary delight of the sight will, later, have devastating effect.
Cowling, Schmitz, Hawkins, and Henry have crafted something undeniable in this piece – something brash and magical all at once. It is an excellent example of the Old Fitz and Red Line’s boundless potential.