Review: Howie The Rookie (Red Line Productions / Strange Duck Productions / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

redlineVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Sep 30 – Oct 25, 2014
Playwright: Mark O’Rowe
Director: Toby Schmitz
Cast: Sean Hawkins, Andrew Henry
Image by Kathy Luu

Theatre review
Howie and Rookie are two young Irish men who live epic nights and emerge to relay their experiences to anyone who would listen. They are base and depraved, with values a world away from the middle classes of theatre-land, yet their lack of pretension and extraordinary candour allow us to find identification with a shared essence of humanity. Their stories are terrifying and sickening, but they are never alien, for our instincts understand what it is to be like them, much as we spend our days fighting tooth and nail to create distance from their godforsaken universe. Mark O’Rowe’s script is a detailed look into a life driven by impulse and unaffected appetite, formed by two monologues written with a brand of poetry that is gritty and coarse, although irresistibly beautiful at many points. It is geezers doing lyricism, and art in its enemy’s territory.

Direction by Toby Schmitz delves into the psychology of his actors, to create characters that feel palpable and real, although both are highly theatrical in expression. A thorough authenticity is manufactured by instituting clarity in thought and intensity of emotion in the performers, which translates into wonderfully vivid storytelling and stunning performances. Schmitz reduces the stage into an exaggerated intimacy so that the only thing that matters is the cast.

Design aspects are extremely subtle, for they aim to disappear, but all elements contribute effectively to the power of the men’s dynamic presence. Lights by Alexander Berlage and sound by Jeremy Silver are sensitive and elegant, with many manoeuvres that are practically undetectable but crucial to atmosphere transformations. Stage manager Nicholas Foustellis executes these changes perfectly. Lisa Mimmocchi’s set and costume design takes a minimal approach but the vision she creates resonates with accuracy, even in its spacial abstraction.

Andrew Henry performs the first half of the piece in the role of Howie. He first addresses the audience out of character, with mundane information about mobile phones and emergency exits, using the opportunity to establish humour and a camaraderie that he brings into the play. Henry maintains eye contact with us throughout, insisting that we hear every word, and we do. The actor’s delivery in both physical and vocal terms is almost acrobatic in its agility. He is funny, outrageous and disturbing, always keeping us firmly in the palm of his hand, and the range of emotion he portrays can only be described as impressive. A major mood transition occurs at the end of his soliloquy that is absolutely breathtaking, and a must-see for any fan of the dramatic arts.

Also remarkable is Sean Hawkins, who takes on the latter half of the production as Rookie. Hawkins’ energy is vibrant and sprightly, providing a clever contrast to the darker Howie. Hawkins is a passionate raconteur who brings brilliant animation to his tales, and the stripes shaven into his temples to match his Adidas tracksuit, indicate the depth at which the actor has absorbed the text. Revealing all that the character believes and feels, Hawkins’ face is mesmerising. It tells us all that Rookie wishes to divulge, and then some. The performer lays bare an honesty that lets us read into a complex portrayal of what seems to be a simple existence.

Small theatre can refer to budgets, venue sizes, or the actual scope of content being produced. In the case of Howie The Rookie, it is the serendipitous meeting of all three that has created something sublime. More extravagant expenditure or auditorium capacity will not improve the colossal genius presented on this very special occasion.