Theatre Review






Grassy Knoll presents

Howie the Rookie

by Mark O’Rowe

Directed by Benet Catty

Old Red Lion Theatre


17 March - 4 April 2009





A review by Diana Damian for EXTRA! EXTRA!


It’s been ten years since Howie the Rookie made its way onto the London stage, then at the Bush Theatre, crowned with three awards (Irish Times New Play Award, George Devine Award and The Rooney Award for Irish literature). Now it breaks through the walls of one of London’s favorite pub theatres, its pace and rhythm exploding their grime into the small room upstairs. The wooden seats crackle at the energy which bursts out of this confrontational play, where Johnny Vivash (The Howie) and Kieran Gough (The Rookie) skillfully create the mundane, poetic and dangerous world of Howie the Rookie. A gripping story and a precise theatrical language throw you right inside the dark streets of Dublin, painting their picture with the smell of your pint and the gaze of your imagination. What makes for a unique approach is the dialogue between physicality, action and description. With only two performers onstage, and only one speaking at one time, Benet Catty’s direction is precise and stimulating.

Howie is ‘after the Rookie Lee’. He was the last to sleep on his mates’ mattress and gave them all scabies. As Howie walks the streets of Dublin to find a baby sitter for his brud, Mousie, The Rookie is in trouble. He has until midnight to find seven hundred pounds he ownes to Ladyboy, or he’ll lose his kneecaps. And it is all going to happen tonight. Although not related, Howie and Rookie share their last name, ‘Lee, as in the Bruce’ as Howie confidently declares. As the story progresses, so does their relationship. We follow these two personalities in their interrupted stream of consciousness and their true vernacular. The story turns from the mundane to the mythical, exploring not only what lies behind the everyday, but also what heroism and honour mean.

Less of a thriller and more of a portrait, Howie the Rookie is a great dialogue between action and portrayal, where Johnny and Kieran manage to recreate an array of characters with their precise caricature. Action is complimented by intelligent physicality that paints the image and interprets the text.  ‘Three men, three hearts, three lungs’, Howie says as he describes a chase scene that rattles the floors beneath our feet. We run through these streets almost holding our breaths in the tension of capture.
The dialogue between text, action and movement is tense and powerful. The moments when this tension drops are forced stylizations, when images are slowed down, gestures overemphasized, and performers take too long arriving at a thought. Yet the structure of the play is surprising and intelligently played with. The strongest moments have an economy of image, allowing us to finish the thought, link action, paint the image. The play is suggestive, its pace never letting us go, actions filled with subtext that slowly takes over the story.

The sound aids in recreating hidden alleys, clubs, homes, yet when it attempts to emphasize the importance or emotion of a scene, it fails. This is rare, and the way the sound creeps through every corner of the stage aids the quickness of the play and brings forward textures in the story.

It is interesting how much lighting governs this performance, and worthy of noting that the director, Benet Catty, is also the lighting designer. There is an imaginative and precise clarity of space, as we move to back alleys, club, houses, up and down stairs, impressive for a stage so small and a cast of only two. Shadows hide within these alleys, colors and shapes framing different levels of Dublin’s underbelly. Johnny and Kieran give great performances as they become each other’s friends, enemies, young, old, female.  The design is elusive enough to bring back to life this metaphor of grit, and Benet’s understanding of theatrical language, together with Johnny and Kieran’s skill and energy, really bring this text to life.

Howie the Rookie is quick, smart, textured. Physicality, voice, text and lighting work together effectively at close proximity, and it seems moments that bring the performance down are brief changes of focus and forced stylizations. A night packed with action, escapist and playful, violent and vivid.


Box office: 020 7837 7816
£13/10 (concessions)
Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Street
 London EC1V 4NJ






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