“There’s nothing like having your dad cut in two to clear the brain”
Despite seeing a rehearsed reading of Jez Butterworth’s Mojo in 2006, I didn’t remember much about it before going to see Ian Rickson’s production at the Harold Pinter theatre. Which is just as well, because discovering it in this vibrant full blooded (and occasionally bloodied) production was a real pleasure. Trying to untangle its secrets and pulling at its different threads (its plot, its aesthetic, its language) is a game best enjoyed in the dark. Its backdrop, a 1950s Soho club after hours, is the perfect setting for such an enterprise.
The play, a naturalistic look at the dark heart of the Soho underworld, all wrapped as a base under siege story and a battle for succession, is sprinkled with a touch of Tarantino and is a maze hiding hope and trepidation. The language is full of riffs going further and further until you tense with fear they will drag you off the cliff. Its humour is chewed at the edges, equally funny and scary. Early on, the thumping of the music synchronises with the thumping of hearts. Thrills and fear become indistinguishable.
The characters are the action and the production is blessed with big names who can open the doors to the play. Ben Whishaw’s Baby, chest out, low voice, hypnotic with an unexpected raggedness, has echoes of a young Christopher Walken (and the dance moves to match). The look in his eyes reflects past horrors, but the haunted has turned haunting and his unpredictability rattles the play like an earthquake. He plays against Colin Morgan’s flighty, spineless Skinny, whose nervousness hides something more sinister. His drawn paper-thin features mask a cruel, self-serving view of the world, and his last scene is unnervingly memorable and shamefully satisfying.
Daniel Mays’ Potts and Rupert Grint’s Sweets are as out of their depth as they can be, a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pair daydreaming futile dreams. Daniel Mays, slack-jawed, motor-mouthed and with his impressive talent of drawing worlds with his body, dominates the scenes he is in, even though his character is as impotent as he is deluded. Rupert Grint, in his first stage role (and very well he does too) brings a round-faced homeliness to his character. Sweets, engaging in his lack of imagination and his basic desires (“I thought we were mates”), might well be the most relatable character of the play.
Brendan Coyle’s Mickey is purposeful and hard to read. Despite his steely stare, his core is rotten and Coyle manages to suggest decay long before events lead to revelations. And Tom Rhys Harries as Silver Johnny, more a dream than a man, makes great use of his little time on stage, making the transition from vision to flesh and blood through an intensely physical – and unsettling – scene.
The set, designed by Ultz, goes from a depthless cramped room in the first half to an underground vast hall in the second. These people’s lives unfold underground, the greater the depth, the closer they are to their true selves.
In the end, for all its energy and cockiness, Butterworth shows this world to be small and lifeless. All characters think themselves as kings, but they are lurking at the edges of power, lucky to survive random aftershocks of other people’s actions. Only Ben Whishaw’s Baby, whose sociopathic tendencies are matched by an almost tender sincerity, is rewarded with a clear quiet dawn where nothing happens. Exactly what he was dreaming of.