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A CurtainUp Review
Howie the Rookie

January 9, 2001 New York "Second Thoughts". When CurtainUp's London reviewer, Lizzie Loveridge, filed her review of Howie the Rookie a few months ago (with a note that it was enroute to New York), it became a prominent addition to my "eagerly-awaited" list. Now that the play (with cast, director and designers intact) has made the trans-Atlantic trip from The Bush Theatre, I am happy to report that Lizzie's praise for this work is apt. Her excellent, thorough review (see below) requires little annotation.

I am also pleased to report that the play has weathered its voyage without suffering any losses in the translation. Es Devlin's simple but especially artful set fits beautifully on P.S 122's downstairs theater's stage, and both performers succeed in delivering the play's rough-edged Irish vernacular in a way that makes us feel most at home with it. Lizzie's warning about the difficulty of understanding it at first either lowered my expectations sufficiently, or else the performers and director Mike Bradwell went to extraordinary effort to make the language understandable to us.

And it's a good thing because, as Lizzie points out, Mark O'Rowe's delicious writing is at the heart of this impressive effort. In the hands of Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels, his words -- poetic in their cadence -- ignite on the stage, affording the audience an uncommonly visceral experience. The monologue nature of this play -- both actors appear on stage solo, although they refer to each other and the stories are inter-related -- will remind many readers of Conor McPherson's plays like The Weir and This Lime Tree Bower. With those plays Howie the Rookie shares the same limitations, but they do not prepare one for the chemical reaction this play seems to foment with the audience.  

Howie the Rookie continues at P.S. 122, 150 First Av. (@9th Street), telephone (212) 477-5288 until January 27, 2001. Performances are Wed. - Sun. @7:30, Sat. - Sun. @10:30; $15. P.S. 122's website: It will then move to San Francisco, again for a one-month run. 

Director Mike Bradwell is also at the helm of another Bush Theatre hit, Resident Alien -- a biographical drama in which Bette Bourne plays the infamously famous Quentin Crisp. (to be reviewed at CurtainUp after its official January 18th opening).

A CurtainUp London  Review
Howie the Rookie

By Lizzie Loveridge
Break hearts and hymens, I do
---The Rookie Lee
For the first few moments of Howie the Rookie you think that the actor is speaking another language. The Irish accent can throw you as can the plethora of vernacular but your ear starts to adjust. Slowly there is understanding and suddenly you are listening to the poetry of the street. 

Mark O’Rowe is picking up awards for this play which was chosen to re-open The Bush Theatre in West London after its refurbishment. The Bush’s success in its stated aim of “discovering, nurturing and developing new writers” is making it a place to watch. 

What I think is special about O’Rowe’s writing is that his characters, both articulate within the confines of their (non-literary) society and speaking in what Piaget called “restricted code,” bring so much vibrancy to their words. Simplistically, it is a kind of Trainspotting meets The Weir, comparable in impact to Catcher in the Rye, as teenagers find a voice.

Howie the Rookie consists of two monologues separated by an interval, one from Howie Lee, the other from his enemy, Rookie Lee. The events of one evening are described, starting with laddishness and ending in tragedy. The play is set in Dublin, but not in the Dublin that the tourists see, this is a public housing estate where gangs, body piercing and unemployment reign. Both Howie and Rookie give some background description of their dysfunctional families, “the oul’ one and the oul’ fella”, that’s the parents. 

The tale that Howie (Aidan Kelly) tells is how his mates Peaches and Ollie catch scabies, try to treat it and track down the man that infected them to seek revenge ("gi’ him a hidin’"). Howie is pursued sexually by The Avalanche, Peaches’ buxom sister, “a monster, sixteen stone (224 lbs), size forties on her chest, few tats (tattoos)”. They all try to avoid the odiferous Flann Dingle. 

The Rookie’s (Karl Shiels) predicament is money, lots of it. In a hilarious passage, he tells us how by accident he killed two prize Siamese Fighting Fish worth £700, belonging to Ladyboy, but is held liable to repay the money. This passage will give you a flavour, “But Ladyboy’s getting pissed off, the fish won’t fight. Prods them with a wooden spoon, tryin’ to agitate them, but they’re lazy litle fucks, one of them’s a big stringy poo hangin’ out it’s hole, wants to be left in peace”. 

Aidan Kelly (The Howie Lee) is tall, pale ginger hair close cropped and denim clothes. He tells his tale with such humour that we warm to him, although some of the time we are also laughing at his stupidity in getting into such scrapes, as he lunges from one absurd complication to another. Kelly’s performance has a light touch and is totally credible. Not for one moment are you aware that this is acting.

 Karl Shiels (The Rookie Lee) is handsome, looking a little like Elvis in his black gear, as he fixes members of the audience with a direct look, his bright blue eyes fringed with dark lashes. He is altogether slicker than Howie but isolated, “No mates. Only birds I’ve shagged”. The same surname for both characters is a coincidence. 

The director, Mike Bradwell, allows his actors mime to help us with language we might not be familiar with. Howie points to his crotch to make sure that we know exactly where Avalanche is going to get her next tattoo, [“a tat on me gat”, she says]. The whole moves at a furious pace with much packed into ninety minutes. 

At the end of the first act, the tone changes to extreme pathos as Howie describes the death of his little, five year old brother, The Mousie Lee. The lighting casts shadows on Howie’s face suddenly aging him and giving him an almost sinister appearance as his family blames him. You can decide if this is fair. 

The set is like black slate, the faint chalk of old grafitti, with some bright green grass round the edge. The effect is of a cold, harsh landscape. 

Howie the Rookie has won the Irish Times New Play Award 2000, the 1999 George Devine Award, the 1999 Rooney Award for Irish Literature and the Herald Angel for the Best Production at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Aidan Kelly won Best Actor Award from the Sunday Tribune and the set designer, Es Devlin got the Barclays TMA Award. 

It is coming to New York and San Francisco. The language is coarse, sexually explicit, and authentic. 
Written by Mark O’Rowe
Directed by Mike Bradwell

With: Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels
Design: Es Devlin
Lighting Design: Simon Bennison
Running time: 90 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7610 4224
Booking to 11th November 2000 then on tour to Glasgow and Plymouth. In 2001, New York 4 – 27 January, San Francisco, 1-25 February
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th October 2000 performance at The Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush Green London W12

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©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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