Theatre Company: Substance and Shadow Theatre
Cast: Midge Mullin, Si Cook
Plot: Two thugs are locked on a collision course in the blood-soaked streets of Dublin, resulting in unpredictable results.

Walking into the Barnfield Theatre to watch Howie the Rookie, a celebrated fringe play by Mark O’Rowe performed by the Exeter based theatre company, Substance and Shadow Theatre, was a bit of a peculiar experience. My only preconceived knowledge of the play was that it featured a bunch of Irish men knocking the shit out of each other. As I entered the room and saw a few board placed together for a set, an intimate audience seating arrangement and minimal lighting, I must confess I was worried. The fears grew when the play began and I realised Howie the Rookie follows a very straight two act formula. There are only two actors, Midge Mullin and Si Cook, each having an act each. For their act, they are alone on the stage, props mimed and supporting cast imagined, holding the entire room with a lengthy monologue. As someone who has been treated to some fantastic light shows or complex theatre productions recently, I was nervous about sitting through a two-hour play where theatre was dragged right back to basics.

Thankfully, what follows totally works. Midge Mullin plays Howie Lee, a violent street thug, living with his parents and baby brother, constantly looking for a scrap. When his friend catches a skin infection leading to an embarrassing situation for any macho Irishman, Howie is recruited for a revenge mission against Rookie Lee. Howie has no idea why he is chasing down this person (whom he has a slight respect for, seeing as they both share a surname), but accepts anyway, wrapped up in an evening of violence he has little control over. Meanwhile, Si Cook plays Rookie Lee, the man they are after. Rookie has his own problems, unaware that he has passed on this disease to some angry Irish thugs. He has also pissed off the dangerous Ladyboy, a violent gangster, who wants 700 quid by the end of the night. This two stories interconnect in a stunning two-handed performance. To call it a two-man play doesn’t really do Mark O’Rowe’s writing any justice, because in truth, there are a whole array of entertaining personalities on board here. Howie dodges romance from his best friend’s obese sister, Avalanche. Two crazy Irishmen spend the night driving their car over the speed limit, one of them strapped to the roof. A blonde girl at a bar keeps on cropping up in the story, each incident funnier than the last. Just because none of these characters are given an actor to portray them, doesn’t make them any less alive on stage. Mullin and Cook’s duologues with open air are so invigorating, so watchable, that you genuinely feel fear or satisfaction when a favourite character ‘appears’ on stage. Sometimes not having an actor there gives the character even more clout. Avalanche, the obese sister, is described as grotesque, see-through skinny jeans leaving nothing to the imagination. Having an actress play the part would have filled in the gaps that an audience are having too much fun making up in their head. Avalanche’s true hideousness depends on each audience’s members imagination. Hypothetically, everyone had a different experience. Did we imagine our own mates as the invisible characters on stage? Do we see Howie’s vengeful best friend as a comical fool or a malicious thug? Substance and Shadow Theatre leave the big questions to you and just make themselves the canvas for this story of Irish violence in the streets of Dublin. And both actors are superb, this play the sort of thing that can get dull very quickly if the cast aren’t game. Holding a room with nothing but your performance is tough, the absence of any relief from another actor apparent. But there is so much vitality and diversity to both performances that the ride never begins to flag. In fact, as each act closes, it feels far too early. Surely there is longer to be spent in this charming, unpredictable and wildly hilarious world of macho men, Mayan philosophies and fighting fish?

Final Verdict: Two phenomenal performances do the heavy lifting of this play, as a killer script brings an empty space into a vibrant production.

Four Stars

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