Rosie and Midge Mullin‘s “Substance & Shadow” Theatre Company move in a new direction this week. Following on from the slapstick humour and political intrigues of “Brexit Club” earlier this year, they now move on to something decidedly darker.
“Howie the Rookie” (Mark O‘Rowe, for his mother Patricia, 1999), in the hands of Rosie and Midge, with new collaborator Si Cook, is a masterpiece of minimalism. The stage is devoid of all props, save a box to sit on. The music (composed by Si and Finn Cook) is a simple and ominous pulse, commanding attention without fanfare. The sound and lighting are controlled by Samantha Taylor with deft discretion, barely disturbing the action on stage. Over all, Rosie Mullin‘s direction insists on a single track of thought without deviation or distraction.
Our two main protagonists, Howie Lee and Rookie Lee (unrelated), never meet on stage (except for their curtain call – see above). Instead, each describes how the other features in their own life, in remarkably intense soliloquy. At first their lives seem hardly to intersect, but an apparently trivial act of revenge leads to a much closer relationship resulting from two other, quite separate tragedies.
Midge, as The Howie Lee, begins the tale, building the catalogue of memories deliberately like the laying of so many bricks. No observation is omitted, however sordid. Every bodily function is recalled in vivid detail. The events he relates seem almost inconsequential, concentrating mainly on his unsatisfactory relationships with women (including the unforgettable ‘Avalanche‘, who we meet only in his descriptions). The odd revenge exacted on his namesake, The Rookie Lee, seems almost coincidental, as do the cameo appearances of Flan Dingle & ‘Ginger Boy‘ cruising the streets in their green van.
Despite their apparent simplicity, Howie’s recollections suddenly take a shocking and grievous turn, leaving the audience stunned. As Midge leaves the stage you could hear a pin drop. Sundry extraneous sounds from the foyer fail to register. The interval passes in a daze.
Now Si, as The Rookie Lee, takes up the tale. The vengeance of Howie and his gang is dismissed lightly. Rookie seems unsure what prompted it, and equally unconcerned. He has much more serious worries on his mind. Almost comically accrued debts put him in mortal danger from another, so far unmentioned character. Suddenly Howie reappears in a new rôle, along with Avalanche and her brother ‘Peaches‘, not to mention Flan & Ginger Boy. All draw together to participate in gruelling final act of this daemonic drama.
If Howie’s closing revelations were stunning, the culmination of Rookie’s tale is devastating. This is a play not to be taken lightly. Both actors are totally focussed and are the focus of attention for a full ninety minutes. Their revelations hit the audience like a series of storm surges, leaving no time for recovery before each successive assault on the senses.
“Brace for impact.”
“Howie the Rookie” will be showing in the Clifford Room at the Barnfield Theatre on two more nights this week – Wednesday & Friday at 8pm. More performances at other venues must surely follow.