Betta. Siamese fighting fish. Whose males are notoriously territorial and aggressive. Similar to S.E. Hinton’s novel Rumblefish, (made into a movie of the same name by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Matt Dillon) Betta could well serve as a fitting metaphor for Mark O’Rowe’s award winning, "Howie the Rookie". In which a bucket of Betta and a bout of scabies send namesakes, Howie Lee and The Rookie Lee, spiralling into a sea of casual tragedy. Yet Betta could also serve as a fitting metaphor for Glass Mask Theatre’s 20th anniversary production of O’Rowe’s classic. One in which passionate performers and a troubled tech go head to head, leaving a clear, if bloodied victor.
Still as potent as ever, O’Rowe’s journey through twenty-four hours delivers a visceral commentary on the normalisation of casual violence disguised as a search for honour. In a world where mythic and mysterious forces are at play leading to violent deaths, and maybe something resembling redemption. Built from two conjoined monologues, rich in urban poetic rhymes and rhythms, the first follows Howie Lee, a hard man with a heart, who likes flexing muscle with his mates and getting laid if he’s lucky. A life without direction that is soon given a cruel direction by fate. Leading to the second monologue and the tormented exploits of The Rookie Lee, a kind of Billy no friends who loves, and is loved by all the ladies. Picking up where the first monologue ends, The Rookie’s tale drives towards a final, brutal ending. In which Lady Boy, Avalanche, and her brother Peaches confront Howie and The Rookie one last time while Matt Dillon parties outside.
If you’ve never appreciated sound and light designs, the best usually blending so seamlessly as to be unnoticed, "Howie the Rookie’s" carelessness will renew your admiration for those who do it right. Even allowing for being in preview, amateurish light and sound designs are unmitigated disasters. Unforgivably poor for a night before opening, and unforgivable for marring two hugely invested performances. Throughout, endlessly busy lights create the same effect as if, having just painted a Rembrandt portrait, a child came along and coloured it over in crayon. So much so that even when lights achieve something modestly interesting, like end scene fadeouts, it all gets lost in the overall, unconfident mess. Similarly a barely audible yet intrusive sound design, reminiscent of annoying voices whispering endlessly in your ear while you’re trying to concentrate. Overworking to try add gravitas and poignancy when none were needed with what sounds like bad prog rock, or something resembling a 1970s suspense drama soundtrack. Achieving the same effect as spilling gravy all down the front of your pristine outfit after having gone to the bother of getting dressed up.
The pristine outfit in question being two compelling performances by Stephen Jones and Rex Ryan, which director Neil Flynn invests with a good deal of verve. Only to see much of it undermined by engaging in mortal combat with tech. From the get-go, Jones’ Howie doesn’t tell you his story so much as live it. Jones emboldening Howie with a Cheeky Chappy charm as he regales with all the laconic lustre of a Dublin saunter, rambling unknowingly towards disaster. If the cost is a noticeable lack of menace, Howie being somewhat more darling than dangerous, creating a discrepancy with the Howie outlined in the second act, all that’s offset by some detailed vocal and gestural work by Jones, yielding wonderful insights into Howie's softer, more humane frustrations.
If Jones lives his happy go luck Howie, Ryan’s pretty boy Rookie seems more subdued for being something told. A brave choice showing The Rookie in an interesting light. As someone alone and a little on the outside, observing all he sees and experiences from a modest distance. Relying on others for pretty much everything. Moving through the pubs and clubs with a matter-of-fact self-confidence, looking all the more credible for Ryan's understated Rookie never being overly flashy.
Dealing in heartfelt hard men, "Howie the Rookie’s” power resides in the searing directness and emotional honesty of its characters. Characters many performers dream of playing, but which few truly manage. In Glass Mask Theatre’s "Howie the Rookie,” Jones and Ryan prove themselves more than up to the task, making brave, strong, committed choices while performing under less than ideal circumstances. If not all choices will be to everyone’s liking, Jones and Ryan shine lights into places others have frequently missed. Their performances likely to yield even richer dividends the further the run progresses. As for light and sound, the kindest thing would be putting us out of their misery by taking them outside and having them shot. Because when Jones and Ryan hit form and let fly, you won’t tolerate any distractions.
"Howie the Rookie" by Mark O’Rowe, presented by Glass Mask Theatre, runs at The Viking Theatre until February 8, before going on tour.
For more information, visit The Viking Theatre or Glass Mask Theatre.