Arts: Theatre: Damon Runyon's Dubliners

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The Independent Culture
YOUNG, GIFTED and Irish: the number of dramatists who answer to that description continues to swell. The latest is Mark O'Rowe, whose elatingly funny play, Howie the Rookie, is premiered now in Mike Bradwell's focused production at The Bush. In a tradition stemming from Brian Friel's 1979 masterpiece Faith Healer, down to Conor McPherson's 1995 'prentice piece This Lime Tree Bower, Howie the Rookie consists of consecutive monologues that view fateful events from discrepant perspectives. So every man is the hero of his own monologue? One of the twists here is that that truism is ultimately belied. At the end of the two brilliantly delivered solo turns - which take you on a pungent trawl of lowlife Dublin with its feuds of honour, involving scabies-infested mattresses and accidentally trodden- on prize Siamese fighting-fish - the first speaker becomes, soberingly, the unexpected tragic hero of the second character's monologue.

It's the complete rhythmic assurance and matter-of-fact command of cruddy detail that impress in the writing. Whether denying homosexuality ("Game meaning gay, neither of which I am, furthest thing from..."), or clearing up any possible ambiguity on words such as "after" ("Probably thinks I'm after her - the romantic sense, like, not the other... the batterin'"), O'Rowe's Dubliners kept reminding me, in an odd way, of Damon Runyon's New Yorkers. There's the same absurd courtliness in their argot and nicknames, the same weird pedantry on points of honour. It contributes to a feeling that the genre we are in is urban pastoral and the figures populating it are hapless innocents. All of which enables O'Rowe to pull the rug from under us in the emetic final sequence.

Aidan Kelly as the Howie Lee and Karl Shiels as the Rookie Lee serve the piece supremely well - the tough, crop-headed Kelly given to wonderfully dopey embarrassed grins when he thinks he has pulled a bird, however drunk, the pin-up Shiels is a daft mix of cocky handsomeness and moral cowardice. Both in the acting and the writing, the timing is spot on. Comic details, such as the fact that the Howie's father, having saved up to buy a car because of his bad ticker, blows all the money on a Handi-cam, glancingly recur at the most inappropriate moments - as when, accepting condolences after the dreadful debacle, the father tells the Rookie that he's "very photogenic".

Are consecutive monologues drama? I can't see how you can claim they aren't when the energy between stage and audience is as strong as it is here. Indeed, the 1991 Royal Court revival of Friel's Faith Healer is the most shattering experience I've ever had in the theatre. Both Friel and Conor McPherson are, however, also masters of dialogue and ensemble. I await, with keen anticipation, evidence that this is true, too, of O'Rowe.

Paul Taylor

Booking to 13 March (0181-743 3388)