Friday, 15 November 2013

Theatre review: Mojo

When Jez Butterworth's debut play was staged in 1995 his style was often described as Pinteresque, and Pinter himself appeared in the film version; so it's apt enough that it's returned to London with a run at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Original director Ian Rickson revives 1950s gangster comedy-thriller Mojo with a cast to satisfy any number of fanbases, from Harry Potter to James Bond, Merlin to Downton Abbey. Ezra's Atlantic is a small-time Soho nightclub, mostly a front for other activities that are never specified, but seem to involve a getaway driver. But the club itself has suddenly become a hot property thanks to the discovery of singer Silver Johnny (Tom Rhys Harries,) a pretty teenager who appeals both to screaming teenage girls and, by the sound of it, the odd middle-aged gangster as well. But a meeting between Ezra and the boss of a rival gang ends with Ezra dead, Johnny kidnapped and the gang dealing with a power vacuum at the top.

The opening scene, which sees goons Potts (Daniel Mays) and Sweets (Rupert Grint) guarding the door behind which the fateful meeting is taking place, has a bit of a comic obliqueness that may explain some of those early Pinter comparisons. But actually as it goes on Mojo starts to take on more of a familiar thriller structure - and isn't any the worse for that.

Because essentially Mojo is an entertaining black comedy, a good match for the West End with a witty script and complex relationships. Brendan Coyle as Mickey is tasked with bringing the news that the boss is dead and the star is missing, and part of the story being built up by the first act is just how bad this now is for the rest of the gang: The club's not quite legal itself, so they're all likely to lose their livelihoods, but are their lives also in danger from the rival gang? The answer, of course, is that they're the biggest threat to each other, especially once Ezra's volatile son Baby (Ben Whishaw) learns of his father's death. In a role that's a nice departure from the sort of thing he's been playing recently, Whishaw is the real star of the show, a performance I heard other audience members say on the way out they'd found genuinely frightening.

Mojo coasts along on a homoerotic undertone as well, from the physical interest both, unseen, mob bosses are said to show in Silver Johnny, to Skinny (Colin Morgan) being generally assumed to have copied Baby's style because he's in love with him. The play's dark humour and scenes of menace are largely restricted to the language although there are a few moments when violence spills out into action, like one of the cast spending some time hanging upside-down from the flies (is it too late in the year for that to be a 2013 theatrical meme?) and a couple of rubbish bins full of body parts. (Although... why is one of these body parts a bare foot? Did they take his shoes and socks off before or after they sawed him in half?)

Daniel Mays inevitably plays to the peanut gallery, overacting his way through Potts' hysterics, and Colin Morgan's accent is questionable - although he does (SPOILER ALERT!) have a particularly impressive death scene. If Rupert Grint isn't exactly stretching himself as a gormless sidekick he's at least chosen well for his stage debut, putting himself in the middle of an ensemble in a role that plays to his comic strengths. As Ultz's set expands from seedy upstairs office to the club below, already looking faded despite Mickey only having stuck the sequins on the walls a few days earlier, Mojo paints a romanticised picture of the dodgy dealings behind the explosion of British rock'n'roll, and does so in entertaining fashion.

Mojo by Jez Butterworth is booking until the 25th of January at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.


  1. Will be seeing this in January and am so looking forward to it! As for the foot: well obviously Ezra was offed for his shoes. The gang could have had it much easier figuring out who killed him if they'd paid more attention to footwear :-p

    1. Hope you enjoy it, it's an entertaining show.