West End Review: ‘Mojo’

Mojo reviews Rupert Grint

Rupert Grint distances himself from Ron Weasley in Jez Butterworth's foul-mouthed 1995 play, given a London revival with plenty of polish but little feeling.

Mix two parts Tarantino with two parts Pinter and one part Mamet — for violence, actor-friendly dialogue and punch, respectively — and serve in 1950s gangland London. That’s “Mojo,” the 1995 debut play by Jez Butterworth (“Jerusalem” ) now revived with a headline-grabbing cast including Brendan Coyle (stoic manservant Bates from “Downton Abbey,”) and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley from “Harry Potter”). It’s a recipe for great expectations but beneath the surface excitement, Ian Rickson’s production elicits surprisingly little feeling. In a fierce comedy ricocheting between torture and death, that’s a serious indictment.

Although the piece is more situation (bitter) comedy than anything, there is a plot. But until the final scene, almost every major action happens offstage. That’s problematic when key undramatized events include a Soho club’s 17-year-old singing sensation Silver Johnny (Tom Rhys Harries) being kidnapped, scenes of sexual manipulation, duplicitous behavior and two murders.

The original production caused a sensation, chiefly for Butterworth’s covering device, his exuberant gift for orchestrating giddily graphic, foul-mouthed dialogue shared between a clutch of fast-talking characters. Their riffs with language dazzle audiences and bolster the low-rent characters through power-relationships going badly awry. Given the return of Rickson, Butterworth’s longtime helmer, it’s no surprise that his previous concentration on collective rhythm is once again high. The surprise, however, is that this production’s polish comes at the expense of engaging depth.

In this fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants world, all the lads — it’s an all-male cast — are popping amphetamines. That accounts, in part, for the hyperactive tone of their performances. But there should be a difference between characters being hopped-up and the actors themselves. Here, it’s the actors’ effort that is forever on display.

As chancer Potts, Daniel Mays is so good at this that he literally dances with energy opposite Grint’s amusingly dim Sweets. But undeniably impressive though this is, it’s also highly self-conscious. In most of the exchanges there’s much fast-talking but perilously little listening. The result is that you sit back and admire the effort rather than paying heed to what characters are saying or, crucially, feeling. Suggestions of homoeroticism suggested by the dialogue are under-investigated by the production, and that fact typifies the production in which individual moments are impressive and often funny but cumulative, connected drama is absent.

Colin Morgan grows increasingly powerful as Skinny and the counter-intuitive casting of Coyle brings relaxed power to his portrait as the group’s leader. But as wrecked, malevolent and increasingly pivotal Baby, Ben Whishaw is wholly miscast.

On both stage and screen Whishaw has an unparalleled ability to show vulnerability and victimhood, his face and entire body registering extraordinary shadings of pain. And given that Baby suffers the (off-stage) killing of his father, and more besides, it’s clear why he was cast. But vicious, dominating danger — and, crucially, the essential rage — are not in his repertoire. His attempts at it appear increasingly forced. You can see him charting each stage of the descent into cliched, sing-song psychosis but it never feels frightening.

Predating and, arguably, predicting the onslaught of Brit gangster movies of the late 90’s, the milieu and tone of “Mojo” made a major impact on its first appearance. For all its initially impressive energy, the revival feels dated, its lack of chilling terror creating an evening of strikingly little substance.

West End Review: 'Mojo'

Harold Pinter Theater, London; 785 seats; Opened, reviewed Nov 13, 2013. £55 ($88); Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Production

A Sonia Friedman Prods/ in association with Tulchin Bartner Prods., Rupert Gavin, Tanya Link Prods. and JFL Theatricals/GHF Prods. presentation of a play in two acts by Jez Butterworth.

Creative

Directed by Ian Rickson; sets and costumes, Ultz; lighting, Charles Balfour; sound, Simon Baker, music, Stephen Warbeck; production stage manager, Ben Delfont.

Cast

Daniel Mays, Rupert Grint, Ben Whishaw, Colin Morgan, Brendan Coyle, Tom Rhys Harries.

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  1. Mike Martin says:

    Excellent review. I saw it last night and the lounder and faster the dialogue became the more it became obvious the play had absolutely nothing to saw. Fast talking and a vaguely gangster-ish air a profound play do not make, at times it was plain incomprehensible and at best merely waffle – entertaining waffle, but waffle all the same. The acting too wobbled between wonderful (Mays) and ill-judged (Wishaw – what was that all about). The underlying themes of sexual tension were never explored, let alone resolved, and 10 minutes atfer it ended it had left no impression on my brain at all.

  2. Mike Elliston says:

    What is it with reviewers these days that they have to avidly look for the derivative in a playwright’s work – as if it’s a bad thing? I’m particularly unaware of Tarantino’s theatre work and do Pinter and Mamet hold the exclusivity over sparse language and violence on stage? Perhaps audiences also don’t need to be spoon fed the themes and undercurrents. Perhaps it’s just as interesting to be in the audience and fill in the gaps. And perhaps screen actors known for their roles in big hit films/tv shows shouldn’t attempt to move outside of their more familiar screen roles. Mojo is still fresh, it’s still unlike much of the stale fodder on offer in the main houses. What a wonderful, new opportunity to take it in and appreciate the arc of Butterworth’s career to date. What a privilege to see such an ensemble at work.

  3. up in my headphones says:

    I rather agree, I must say, although I enjoyed Ben Whishaw’s performance for the most part. But the relationships between the actors remain disappointingly underexplored – everything stays within the dialogue. It was an entertaining evening but it didn’t really strike any deeper cords

  4. Cintia Whrite says:

    It is comforting to read a review that does not go with the convenient flow of teenager fans and costume drama-lover frustrated housewives.

  5. Roger Labbett says:

    Thought they avoided cliche by being self-aware and uninterested in connected theatre with a heart. Whishaw did well to avoid classic rage behaviour, making his feel real and original.

  6. Priam Lashka says:

    I’m glad to find a review that I agree with re:Ben. I didn’t find him remotely scary or unhinged. He does the tortured genius fey waif (or any combination of) very very well but here his dancing/running around was the highlight of his performance. He just seemed to talk slowly when he wanted to be menacing which doesn’t really work for me anymore.

  7. Kris Wilson says:

    Curious as to why you feel the casting of Brendan Coyle was “counter intuitive”? Please tell me your knowledge of his career doesn’t begin and end with Mr. Bates. No one does subtle menace and quiet desperation better than Coyle- and he’s done so for 25+ years now.

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