This is a theatre review rather than a pub review, but it is still worth recording massive relief that the pub beneath the Bush Theatre is no longer (shudder) the Fringe & Firkin. True, the atmosphere is still somewhat pre-packaged, since the place is now an O'Neill's – a rich irony, given that not so many years ago it was a genuine London-Irish pub – but we must be grateful for small to medium-sized mercies. The theatre itself is likewise refurbished, with a proper downstairs box-office and – mirabile dictu! – bench-style backs to its boxy seating, so that unlike before it now takes some little application to kick the person in front of you in the coccyx. It also celebrates its reopening with an appropriately Irish-themed show.
It says much for Mark O'Rowe's Howie The Rookie that, after a lauded run here early in 1999 and a successful stint on that year's Edinburgh Fringe, it is so firmly established as one of the Bush's recent Greatest Hits that it is chosen (prior to a brief British and American tour) for the unveiling of the theatre's new facilities. The intensity of London theatre's Hibernophilia may have abated a little – The Weir has eventually closed, Martin McDonagh is suffering a backlash and Sebastian Barry seems simply to have faded from view – but O'Rowe's pair of connected monologues continue to engage.
As Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels' semi-namesake characters The Howie Lee and The Rookie Lee (note the definite articles) navigate their way through the scabious underbelly of Dublin, their world takes on some of the characteristics of those of both Damon Runyon and Irvine Welsh, as well as being a recognisable relative of the slightly softer milieu of Conor McPherson's monologic pieces such as This Lime Tree Bower or Rum And Vodka. Both actors have an easy rapport with the audience, but O'Rowe's writing and Mike Bradwell's discreet direction give each an underlying insecurity: The Howie repeatedly corrects his own turns of phrase, whilst the superficial relaxation of The Rookie's style belies an inner diffidence which occasionally peeps through. Perhaps it is simply that each character knows how his respective tale will end: in violence and casual death.
We have yet to see any of O'Rowe's post-Howie work, but on the basis of this piece the wave of younger Irish writers is far from spent.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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