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.