Whilst Mrs Chrisparkle was jet-setting it across the States for a three hour meeting, I thought I’d take the opportunity to see Mojo at the Harold Pinter theatre (or, as I like to call it, the Comedy theatre). It was a play I quite fancied the look of but thought it would be something Mrs C wouldn’t really appreciate. With hindsight, I think I was probably right, I don’t think she would have liked it much; but then again, I don’t think I liked it much either. I should say right from the start there are a few spoilers in this blog post, so if you’re still to see the show, and don’t know what happens, please ignore paragraphs four, ten and eleven.
It’s set in a dingy Soho club in the 1950s where a rock’n’roll set from young and upcoming star Silver Johnny is guaranteed to pull in the crowds, so the club makes a lot of money. But arguments and power struggles between Mr Johnny’s manager Ezra and local gangster Sam Ross end up with one dead manager and one kidnapped star. The club is run and staffed by a bunch of London hoodlums, and basically the play is about how this “management team” copes with the aftermath.
Gentle reader, I’m a pretty seasoned theatregoer. In my lifetime I’ve seen well over a thousand plays and shows. However, in order to encapsulate the nub of the play in a brief paragraph like the one above, I had to check Wikipedia and other sites that provide a synopsis in order to get the basis of the plot. I found the writing to be so deliberately obfuscating that I spent most of the play trying to understand what was going on without ever really being sure.
Structurally it’s quite old-fashioned; it preserves many of the unities of classical theatre. It all takes place on the same day, in the same location, and there’s more or less one theme – how the guys are going to cope with the situation. But as a result, particularly in the first act, so many of the important events that shape the story happen off stage, with the result that you spend all the time watching people talk about other people you don’t meet and events you don’t see. For it to work as a play, you really have to be captured by the characters on stage, what they say and how they say it, because there’s nothing dramatic to look at. It’s all very reported, very wordy – and I’m afraid I found the first act really quite boring. The second act is better, because – finally – things actually start happening on stage; and the climax is riveting, certainly helped by the technical expertise of the actors and the set, when Mr Johnny is brought on, trussed up like a chicken, suspended by his feet on an abbatoir-style pulley system; and when one of the characters gets shot, the use of stage blood is very atmospherically done.
It’s written by Jez Butterworth, an author of some distinction, and everyone raves about his play “Jerusalem”, which I haven’t seen, as I confess to being new to his work. Mojo was indeed his first play, originally produced at the Royal Court in 1995, and it feels to me very like a “first play” – the author has some interesting characters, an imagination of a couple of stunning visual set pieces, a lot of cockily bad language, and a story to tell. But I do think the story comes last here, and its sense of dramatic narrative, rather like Feargal Sharkey’s “Good Heart”, is hard to find. And when you come away and ask yourself, “what was all that about then”, sadly I don’t feel Mr Butterworth had anything particularly enlightening to say about the characters or the world they inhabited; I don’t think this play changes the world in any way. It comes; it tells its story; it goes away. It left me with no residual impact. It’s one of those occasions where it’s not the sum of its parts.
Which is of course a great shame, as those parts, that it’s not the sum of, are pretty tremendous. Ultz’s set is very evocative of a grim nightspot and its unglamorous backstage offices. Charles Balfour’s lighting is used to great effect to create differences between the general murkiness of the club’s day to day activities and the outside world. The use of music and sound similarly suggest the possibility of external activity that doesn’t permeate into the small underworld presented to us. And the all-star cast are extremely good in their roles.
At the heart (not that it really has one) of the play is a virtual double act between Sweets and Potts, played by Rupert Grint in his first stage role and Daniel Mays. If this really is his stage debut, all credit to Mr Grint, whose performance is a delight. Sweets is a hyper-anxious, sucking-up, wheedling little guy who you sense is only part of the gang because he provides the pills (presumably the sweets of the nickname). His funny mannerisms suggest someone who knows he is punching above his weight but has no choice but to keep punching, and his speech delivery mimics anyone who he’s trying to impress. Think a young Ian Beale from Eastenders but with amphetamines. It’s a very assured performance and, if a long-lasting glittering career wasn’t in the bag before, surely it is now.
The other half of the double act, Daniel Mays’ Potts, is a more experienced, more wise-cracking version of Sweets, unpredictable as to whether he will fly in the face of authority or cower in its presence. With similar speech patterns to Sweets, Messrs Mays and Grint perform a veritable verbal ballet together, the two becoming interchangeable, which is at times very funny indeed. Another very assured performance, and the audience loved him, but I found the character of Potts really irritating. I didn’t really feel there was a genuine character in there, more a generic caricature of 50s London gangsterhood; think Boycie from Only Fools and Horses but without the wealth and standing.
Another superb performance (you would expect nothing less) comes from Ben Whishaw (compellingly good in Peter and Alice) as Baby, a really nasty piece of work. You can’t quite put your finger on where the character’s sadism is psychotic and he can’t really do anything about it, and where it is deliberate. He has a perfectly pitched highly unnatural laugh that would really scare you if you knew someone like that in real life. Every move he makes, everything he says, could be a threat – either veiled or actively intimidating. Mr Whishaw also has this ability to make himself (and his character) blend into the background, patiently waiting to pounce; which gives Baby’s input, whenever it comes, a greater impact.
Colin Morgan’s Skinny is the drudge of the gang, given the most menial tasks in the club, and is the victim of much of Baby’s more savage attention. I sensed this was the character that Jez Butterworth liked the most, as you got more of an insight into his character than anyone else – his sense of self-worth (that no one else sees), his ambition, his misplaced vanity. It’s a funny and sad performance, and his death scene is magnificent. Baby’s murder of him is essentially ludicrous anyway, and they all make the best of the comic potential of the scene – the best-written part of the play I think – but when he shakes and can’t finish his words because he’s suddenly cold and is about to die, it’s a combination of humorous and harrowing, and surprisingly moving.
Brendan Coyle’s Mickey is the low-level gangster boss, with a deeply threatening authoritative nature and aspirations of grandeur. When he seethes with anger you really feel it in the auditorium. Mr Coyle is, of course, best known as that respectable valet Mr Bates in Downton Abbey, who has the seeming ability to eliminate his opponents with quiet deadliness. Mr Coyle’s Mickey is exactly how you would imagine the “Mr Hyde” aspect of Bates to be, albeit with F words. This is not a man to mess with. But his world suddenly falls apart at the end with both the destruction of his ambitious plans and the assassination of his mate, and his delicately controlled performance very effectively showed how his authority quickly ebbed away.
The final member of the cast is the underused Tom Rhys Harries (whose performances we have enjoyed twice recently, in Torch Song Trilogy and The History Boys) as Silver Johnny, preparing for his show and then returning as the suspended plaything of a deranged brain. It’s a remarkable feat of endurance for Mr Harries to spend so long upside down like that. I do hope he got medical clearance first. There’s no insight into his character offered as he’s just a commodity as far as the plot is concerned.
I feel like I have missed out on something by not enjoying this play more; it just didn’t say anything to me though, despite the best efforts of its remarkable cast. Ah well, as we were once told by a guide hoping for tips from a bus load of Australian tourists, not every day is a Sunday.
PS. A full house gave the show massive whoops and cheers at the end from what sounded like young adoring female fans. The play itself is not one of those feelgood experiences that make you naturally want to explode with vocal joy. I’m guess they were specifically aimed at Mr Grint; maybe a planned campaign of “Whoops for Rupert”. Would that be “Roops”?
PPS. Despite the audience’s ecstatic reception, it was a very downbeat curtain call from the cast. Only Messrs Whishaw and Mays seemed to make any real eye contact with the audience, Mr Grint looked uncomfortable being there, and Mr Coyle looked like he would have rather been anywhere else. I guess that final scene must have taken it out of him.