This has been a difficult play to review because I still keep changing my mind over whether I liked it or not. Without question, it has a strong cast, it’s well acted and wickedly funny – it had me absolutely helpless with laughter at some points. But, as with some plays (and it is important that such plays exist), none of the characters are particularly endearing and not a lot really happens. All of the action that steers the play has happened several hours before, somewhere else and we are now watching the aftermath.
Mojo plunges us into a seedy underworld of neer-do-wells in late 1950s Soho just as rock’n’roll is starting to explode onto the London music scene. For the boys at the Atlantic Club, there’s money to be made, drugs to push, territory to defend and an endless stream of liberal-minded girls. When a rival gangster Mr Ross murders Ezra (their club owner) in a very grisly manner and teen heartthrob Silver Johnny has gone missing, Mickey, Sweets, Potts, Baby and Skinny start to wonder if one of them could be next, so decide to barricade themselves into the club for the weekend. The claustrophobic atmosphere means that the cracks between them start to appear very quickly. As if the situation itself wasn’t bad enough, they’re trying to deal with it whilst assortedly hungover, still buzzing and/or on a comedown (or any combination of the three).
It takes a little while to tune into the dialogue and vernacular of ‘Laaandan’, partly because it’s very naturalistic with people shouting over each other and partly because it’s drug-addled nonsense. Potts (Daniel Mays) is a brash, cocky wideboy – very much the character of the gang – who seems to be incapable of standing still and constantly chips in with whatever is running through his head. A lot of it, utter crap. But very funny crap. Everything from another man’s shoes “penny loafers. NO tassels.” to the correct use of linguistics: “…in the bins, by the bins, what f***ing difference does it make?! He’s been sawn in ‘alf!” He also has one of the best lines of the play, talking about the girls who get so excited by Silver Johnny that they soil themselves: “anything that makes polite young ladies come their cocoa in public is worth taking a look at!”
It’s often difficult for screen actors to make the transition to theatre, but Rupert Grint (best known as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films) thankfully cuts the mustard in his stage debut. Sweets is vaguely reminiscent of Ron, but with more pills and swearing. He is both gormless and always slightly wired. Grint is blessed with the sort of natural comic timing that cannot be taught – he is on stage almost constantly and manages to be funny even when he’s not saying anything.
Ben Whishaw (Skyfall, Cloud Atlas and Richard II in BBC’s series The Hollow Crown) plays Baby, a deeply troubled and complex character, with astonishing skill; one minute a playful ingenue, then quietly vulnerable, then dangerously volatile. The change is so subtle that you don’t notice it until he’s gone from gentle boy to threatening someone with a cutlass and calling them a c*** within a few syllables. The violence is terrifyingly realistic; too often stage fighting can look choreographed and placed – this looks far more visceral and spontaneous. And who knew that buying toffee apples as a gift could be so menacing?! Whishaw also pulls off some very Elvis-esque crooning with great aplomb.
Skinny (Colin Morgan, Merlin in the BBC series of the same name) is the lost boy of the gang; with no real identity of his own, he copies Baby’s hair and style – at a glance they’re almost indistinguishable from each other. Morgan plays him with a great desperation to fit in and be liked. His final scene starts off being blackly funny “oh no, I’ve got blood on my shirt…. my teeth feel all wobbly.” then slowly moves to being quietly harrowing. The vibration in his voice is quite something.
Mickey (Brendan Coyle, Mr Bates in Downton Abbey) has a menacing undercurrent which he mostly keeps under wraps. He comes across as emotionally hollow, a man who puts business before anything else. Even when all the others are losing their heads in a delirious haze of amphetamines, he is silently mulling things over, not even giving anything away to the audience. Special mention should also go to Silver Johnny (the devastatingly beautiful Tom Rhys Harries) who appears briefly at the start for some rock’n’roll posturing and posing, vanishes for most of the play, and then spends the best part of 20 minutes strung up by his ankles. A small, but surely physically demanding part.
The only trouble with this play is it is LONG. The first half is loaded with pace and quickfire dialogue and it keeps you laughing frequently at some pretty grimy subjects – the sort where your moral compass looks at you with absolute disdain and you know that you should feel terribly guilty (but somehow, you don’t). The the second half has some truly inspired lines like: “Yeah, I came down the chimney. Like f***ing Father Christmas.”, but once the laughs stop coming, the whole thing feels like it’s starting to sag and it has no sign of resolution. It could’ve easily been 10 minutes shorter with no detriment to the overall play. It is a good play and it is well done. As it happens, I liked it; I just didn’t love it quite as much as I wanted to. I suspect a lot of people will see this based on the casting and the hype – do go, but make up your own minds.
Mojo is currently in preview at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, LONDON, SW1Y 4DN and officially opens on Wednesday 13th November; it is currently booking until Saturday 25th January 2014. Contains frequent use of very strong language. For more information and tickets, go to http://www.mojotheplay.com/