ARTS AND FEATURES — 20 November 2013

Ben Whishaw (Baby)

4 stars

By Shelley Marsden

THE first major revival of Jez Butterworth’s 1995 play Mojo, about gang warfare in London towards the end of the 50s, fizzes, spits and broods beautifully with the help of a stunning ensemble cast.

Starring Irishmen Colin Morgan (Merlin, Doctor Who) and Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey, The Weir) as well as Ben Wishaw, Daniel Mays and Harry Potter star Rupert Grint in his first stage role, it is directed by Butterworth’s collaborator from day one, Ian Rickson.

This will be unexpected for those who came to Butterworth late, via his massive hit Jerusalem, starring Mark Rylance as a philosophical Romanov gypsy in a study of rural decay. Mojo is urban to the core and sparks, cracks and pulsates with rock and roll rhythms, but resonates on less levels. It will certainly seem less daring now than when it debuted, winning an Olivier for Best New Comedy.

However, there’s little not to like here. Set in a seedy and dangerous Soho (in the Atlantic Club), at a time of post-war uncertainty, rock and roll was emerging and people downed all manner of pills as they learned to gyrate like Elvis, it’s still incredibly, laugh-out-loud funny.

There’s not a female in sight, but Butterworth’s play is defiantly male and relishes in its characters’ boorishness and physicality, as they fight it out to see who comes out on top in often Tarantino-esque scenes.

Colin Morgan (Skinny)

It’s a power game from the opening scene, as a nervous Potts and Sweets await their boss, fantasizing about the money they’ll pocket having discovered potential singing star ‘Silver Johnny’. But things don’t go as planned, and when they discover club owner Ezra in two dustbins, paranoia starts to kick in.

Morgan is aptly gangly and twitchy as club worker Skinny, Daniel Mays brilliant as sweaty, overly chatty Potts and Coyle as moody manager Mickey. Rupert Grint as May’s panicky partner-in-crime holds his own, but the man of the moment, without a doubt, is Ben Wishaw.

The Skyfall star is spectacular – so chilling and unpredictable as the semi-psychotic and deliciously effeminate Baby that you look nowhere else when he’s on. The plot may be overly simplistic in places, but this virtuoso cast, helped by a seductive backdrop of Teddy boys, wide-boy gangsters and the threat of imminent violence, lifts Mojo into great play territory.

Mojo is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London. To book see www.mojotheplay.com.

 

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