Chapter, Cardiff Wed 14 Nov 2007, 8pm, £3 on the door
Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, Thurs 15 Nov 2007, 7.30pm £3
The Howie Lee – Jack Llewellyn
The Rookie Lee – James Ashton
……The next night, my hearing had recovered sufficiently for me to be able to catch the drift of “Howie The Rookie”, the latest reading as part of Michael Kelligan’s “On The Edge” season at Chapter Arts Centre. This is a cult tale of the Dublin underclass from Mark O’Rowe (the screenwriter of “Intermission”), consisting of two extended monologues focusing on two scummy individuals faultlessly played by Jack Llewelyn and James Ashton. Obviously, it took time to become accustomed to the profane vernacular, but when I did, I found the tragic-comic tales of beatings, unfortunate sexual encounters and untimely deaths highly compulsive.
You can see why On The Edge producer Michael Kelligan chose Mark O’Rowe’s slice of Dublin low-life: a hit play that would lend itself to just the sort of presentation he wants for his programme of rehearsed readings – a two hander without any real action or set. I’m sure that’s not all. O’Rowe’s play achieved some sort of notoriety when it opened a few years ago in London, and went on to garner a clutch of awards, although it has still to convince me that it warrants inclusion in a season of contemporary plays from “leading international playwrights” (or, to be more precise, playwrights from the States, Australia, Scotland and Ireland). But it did make for a good example of this script-in-hand format production – it has some of the qualities of stand-up comedy, being comprised of consecutive monologues, each full of scabrous humour, it has the ring of authenticity and doesn’t challenge the grey cells too much..
It’s more a piece of storytelling from the two protagonists of a petty feud that ends in tragedy and while both Jack Llewellyn and James Ashton do surprisingly well to master the patois (and it isn’t just the accent, it’s the language), it was probably more convincing with Irish performers, this tale of two young Dublin thugs and their social milieu. For while Llewellyn as The Howie Lee, a tough guy seeking revenge on the man who passed on scabies to a gay friend’s guest mattress, is convincing in his delivery (according to the delighted Irishman next to me, to an exceptional degree), Ashton engages us less with any sustained accent but more with his character, The Rookie Lee, the aforesaid scabies-infected target.
The setting may be the Dublin suburbs but it’s familiar territory – it’s just like Damon Runyan’s New York or even Gay’s London. Characters have names like Avalanche, Ladyboy and Peaches (the first a sex-hungry Amazonian in see-through ski-pants, the others not porn stars but tough cookies), they inhabit a world fictionalised in much modern culture from Trainspotting to Tarrantino, and the appeal, I guess, is in the immediacy, the in-yer-face narrative and the proletarian poetry of O’Rowe’s vernacular..
For those less than enthusiastic about this and similar works, one of the criticisms is that it seems more about style than content and appeals on novelty value rather than theatricality or depth. You’re there all the time, fascinated by this exotic species, but like so much similar pleasures (Chinese meals being the most cited cliché) it doesn’t necessarily stay with you.
Gutsy performances, though.