Playwright Jez Butterworth is best known for the astounding success of 2009’s Jerusalem, but before Jerusalem there was Mojo – his darkly funny and explosive debut about a gang of cockney wideboys in 1950s Soho. Eighteen years later and the production’s original director Ian Rickson has returned with a new cast to bring the play back to the West End. Ben Whishaw, Rupert Grint, Daniel Mays, Colin Morgan, Brendan Coyle, and Tom Rhys Harries make for a stellar line-up in this black comedy sure to tempt theatre-lovers!
What’s it about? In 1950s London, the seedy Atlantic club run by Ezra and his gang – the ambitious entrepreneur Mickey (Brendan Coyle), the irrepressible Potts (Daniel Mays), affable pill-dealer Sweets (Rupert Grint), Ezra’s borderline-psychotic son Baby (Ben Whishaw), and young Skinny (Colin Morgan) – has a monopoly on the teen singing sensation Silver Johnny (Tom Rhys Harries). Johnny’s jealous manager Ezra is locked in a rivalry with local gangster Sam Ross, which ends unceremoniously when Sam decides to saw Ezra in half and dump him in some dustbins. Bereft of their leader, Ezra’s gang descends into chaos as they try to decide what to do. Locked in the club with only a tiny pistol and a cutlass to defend themselves, and a cake and some toffee apples to eat, the gang start to turn on each other as panic builds.
Verdict: This black comedy has more than a touch of Tarantino and glories in its medium, making a whirligig of the dazzling dialogue and pitting rich characters against each other in a way that shatters the clichés of the genre. Ostensibly a play about 1950s London gangland, by turns it explores power, masculinity, and violence in a way that is more satirical than it is serious and more farcical than it is fearsome. It stays taut with a sense of trepidation just beneath the surface that is punctured and prodded by the sharp, witty zingers embedded in the rich and tumbling lines of dialogue – delivered wonderfully by the brilliant cast. The end result is a play that darkly mocks masculinity, the power struggles of men dreaming beyond their own limits, and the absurdity of their violence.
The artistic choices for this production are spot-on. The set design is great and the perfect foil for the play. The seedy bar and the upstairs rooms – so very 50s with their wood-panelled walls and dryly noir-ish feel – are exactly the kind of places you’d find these characters who exist just outside of the sphere of the men with power at the beginning, begging information through snatches of conversations as they deliver tea, but who find themselves drawn in as the action unfolds. Add in atmospheric lighting, a gunshot, and a man hanging from the ceiling, and you realise that this production has visual spectacle beyond its initial scope.
But the mainstays of the play are the characterisation and dialogue. Tom Rhys Harries brings an unusual mix of youthful charm, sympathy, and sex appeal – a balance surely hard to achieve. Brendan Coyle’s brilliantly subtle intensity plays out with a quiet assurance that gives the other characters – whose dialogue is fizzing and frantic – something to bounce off. And Colin Morgan gets to traverse everything from vulgar comedy to genuine profound tragedy, which he does consummately. Rupert Grint, making his stage debut, is impressive in a role that requires both unwavering attentiveness to some dense dialogue as well as the challenge of bringing a sense of joviality to an otherwise unlikeable character.
The two virtuoso performances are from Daniel Mays and Ben Whishaw. Mays has an energy that is purely electric, visually captivating and aurally exhilarating, bringing to life a character with wit and dynamism unlike any I’ve ever seen from an actor on stage. Whishaw has arguably the hardest task of all – playing Baby, the seemingly-psychopathic son of Ezra. Playing someone who must be as creepy, unpredictable and violent as he is genuinely sympathetic is not an easy task, but Whishaw is faultless. There were moments when he delivered dialogue, toying effortlessly with speech and silence, when the audience was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The play is relentless in its pace and energy, but these performers keep up with it magnificently.
The only problem with the play is that for all the barbed humour, it’s hard to care about these characters. They’re all unlikable people and, whilst that’s the point, there will almost certainly be some audience members who find this play as frustrating as others will find it fascinating.
Final Words: An amazing cast bring to life a play that is sharp, dark, and rich. Dialogue with such energy that it manages to be prickly, effervescent, and hypnotic all at the same time is just one of the draws, along with truly superb performances. But for all the barbed wit and rich characters, there will be some who find this dark comedy just a little too dark.