By David Hennessy
“I was sitting on my wife’s parents’ couch and I kind of nearly wet myself, literally, because I knew the play and I knew how brilliant it was,” Tom Vaughan-Lawlor tells The Irish World of his reaction at being offered not just one but both roles in Mark O’Rowe’s Howie The Rookie. “I was kind of asking my agent: ‘What part do they want me to play?’ And they didn’t really say and my agent was a bit confused because no one had said which and then he said ‘I think it’s actually both parts’ and then I was like: ‘Oh my God’. But there are challenges that come up in your life where you’ve got to either take them on or not take them on so it was one of those ones where you go: ‘It’s just such an amazing challenge, I have to take this’.”
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is recognisable to many from his role as Nidge in RTE’s Love/Hate. With the show now coming to Channel 5, some will get a second chance to witness Nidge’s rise through the criminal underworld as a UK audience also gets its first introduction to Love/Hate. While Nidge has no shortage of charm and charisma and gets many of Love/Hate’s funniest lines, he also carries the menace and malevolence that he needs to survive in Dublin’s gangland. Tom took the IFTA for Best Television Actor in February when Love/Hate cleaned up with a total of six awards.
Although Channel 5 are set to change this, up until now the stage is where the UK has seen most of Tom in action as his list of impressive credits include being directed by Kathy Burke in The Quare Fellow at Oxford Stage Company, Translations at the National Theatre, The Field at Tricycle Theatre and This Lime Tree Bower at the Young Vic. He was nominated for an Ian Charleson Award for his work in Henry V at Manchester Royal Exchange in 2007. Tom appeared in All My Sons with David Suchet and Zoe Wannamaker at The Apollo Theatre in 2010 and shared the stage with Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack in Juno and the Paycock at the National Theatre as well as Dublin’s Abbey in 2011.
Next month sees Tom return to the UK stage when he brings Mark O’Rowe’s Howie The Rookie to Edinburgh where he will play both Howie and Rookie in the Intermission, Perrier’s Bounty and Broken screenwriter’s journey through a nightmare urban landscape meeting all sorts of outlandish characters, telling the brutal events from two points of view. Although the parts were played by two different actors in earlier productions, the playwright who is also directing decided it would be unfair to put another actor up against Vaughan-Lawlor while also under-utilising his lead actor’s presence which is compelling to watch. Tom’s one man performance has already gone down a storm in Ireland where its run at Dublin’s Arts Centre was extended due to demand.
“It’s amazing,” the actor answers when asked how it feels to be back onstage. “And this is very different being the only actor onstage. I used to say ‘it’s a bit lonely’ but the thing is as someone pointed out to me: The audience are the other character in the play and you’re always in communion with them and the energy they give you. That’s what is really exciting every night: How different the energy is from the audience. It’s really exciting.”
The first half of the show sees Vaughan-Lawlor as Howie Lee while he takes on the other character of Rookie Lee for the second part. No relations, both characters represent different aspects of maleness and their stories are connected by more than their common name: “I’m playing characters that are very, very true to life characters that I identify with on the streets of Dublin and yet at the same time who use this kind of extraordinary fantastical language that’s epic in scale and breadth and so that’s why it’s a real joy to play. They’re very, very real people with very elevated language too. You’re playing several different things on several different levels and that’s why it’s so exciting.”
The play begins with Howie taking instructions to beat up Rookie and The Irish World wonders if the characters are hard to play due to their skewed moral compasses. Tom doesn’t see it this way: “Do you know what? I would say that that’s not true. What I mean is I think they live in a very brutal world but I think they’re good men. Fundamentally, they’re ordinary guys actually, I think just with all the flaws but they live in a very heightened world. Do you know what I mean? The thing actors say, the raw materials for every part you play are within you anyway and so it’s just sort of tapping into that and pushing yourself into the mindsets of the people you’re playing from your own emotional experiences as well so it’s not that hard in a way because you’re always relating to a certain humanity anyway all the time.”
Howie the Rookie has already played Dublin and Cork and will come to Edinburgh via Galway. Does carrying the entire show alone take it out of Tom? “I think you’re full of adrenaline but about an hour after I come offstage, it kind of hits you and I sleep very well. I have a two year old son so he gets me up when he’s around but I have to make sure I get lots of rest in the day. You only miss having someone else to bounce off in the hours coming up when you’re standing backstage kinda wetting yourself, going ‘God’ and there’ s no one to chat to but it’s when you get onstage and they’re there, it more than makes up for it. It’s very special actually, a very unique experience.
“It has been (a mental strain). Now I just kinda have to focus specifically in the few hours before the show and then obviously during the show but when we were rehearsing, it was quite exhausting just because we were working all day every day and everybody in the room was very tired, mentally very tired as well. Now that we’re open, it’s less so but it’s still quite a challenge.”