18/01/2014

Mojo



The Harold Pinter Theatre
Written by Jez Butterworth / Directed by Ian Rickson



Q, Ron Weasley, Mr Bates and Merlin get together – but someone else steals the show!

Not for the linguistically squeamish, Mojo is a play that rattles along at 200mph, characters barely catching their breath and sometimes even talking over each other. Jez Butterworth’s tale of seedy criminality in the summer of 1958 on the cusp of the rock and roll revolution is superficially macho. An all male cast of characters are boastfully riotous yet as matters proceed the artifice is lifted to reveal a bunch of scared, insecure people not necessarily ready to protect each other when things get tough. And they do get tough because before we’ve even met the manager of Ezra’s Atlantic club he has been cut in two. 
Q and Mr Bates begin their tango.


 

It’s the group’s reaction to this vicious event and the ramifications of it that occupy a quintet made up of well-known faces from stage, film or TV as they jostle for position. Each has their triumphant moment but one actor- arguably the least well known to a lot of people- is the one who has netted the juiciest role. Daniel Mays hurls so much vocal and physical energy into the role of Potts that you wonder how he does this every night; how indeed he remembers it all. As written it’s a gift- many critics have acknowledged Butterworth’s debt to Tarantino - and Potts is the sort of person you might find languishing in one of the director’s wordy movies. Every line is funny or clever or something and Mays is so good he sometimes threatens to overwhelm his cast-mates. Potts is one of two characters who dominate the first section; the other making his stage debut is Rupert Grint late of Hogwarts. His character Sweets is the funny guy, the panicky guy and he pulls this off extremely well. Between them they are our way into this strange world.
The play actually opens with Silver Johnny (Tom Rhys Harries) a be-quiffed blond wannabe rock and roll star pulling his moves before he rushes downstairs to perform. This is the last we see of him until he is hanging from chains towards the end. In between Ezra is murdered, Johnny goes missing and the club is potentially about to be taken over by whoever dunnit. The simple premise is riffed on for a good 90 minutes before the reveal (slightly poorly done the night I saw it unfortunately) as to who and the why.
The Quiff- off could really only have one winner

As Potts and Sweets start to panic, other characters swim into view. Baby is Ezra’s rather spaced out son who seems to assume he’s going to take over the place now even though he never does anything. Ben Whishaw plays him like a shark; the character moves much slower, and much less emotionally thorough proceedings. Then there’s assistant manager Mickey played with all the burly authority he can muster by Brendan Coyle. He takes charge and seems like the parent of these errant children. It’s a slightly underwritten role for Coyle who could do more though near the end he pulls some moments out of his hat. The other character is Skinny Luke who builds and builds until he becomes almost as funny as Potts. I suspect Luke is Butterworth’s favourite character because he gets some key bits and some great bits and Colin Morgan shows how he won’t be seen just as TV’s Merlin for long. When you see what he does in a play like this, you wonder why the writers of that series didn’t give him more substantial material.
A lot of people don’t like Mojo; in fact the couple I was next to didn’t return for the second half and I’m sure that wasn’t because of me. It’s a play that contains strong language though I’m not referring to the constant swearing. It’s strong in intent and paints a vivid picture of 50’s club land and the fast emerging music industry without ever leaving the club. It’s a very male world though relies on the adoration of swooning teenage girls. Mojo’s characters are strangely likeable despite their attitudes and actions, though it does have to be said that it takes a strong cast such as this to put that across; in lesser hands this play could come a cropper.
It’s not a perfect play though if the ending stretches credulity its worth bearing in mind that each of the characters uses exaggeration and imagination as regular tools to impress the others. Butterworth barely touches musical issues and hints of sexual tension between one or two of the characters remain flimsy and perhaps imagined. His conclusion lacks anything definitive. Yet Mojo is one of those plays that tests actors- and by implication audiences- to take it on and when it’s done as well as this you’ll come away knowing you’ve seen something special.

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