For those of us that missed the glorious baptism in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in the summer of 1995, there’s a heavy bin-full of expectation hanging over this revival of Jez Butterworth’s first play, which director Ian Rickson has openly trumpeted as its confirmation into the great and holy church of modern classics. There’s little that’s leaden or awkward about this star-littered switchback of a production, but the humour cuts blunter than it does on the page, and the play never quite breaks free of the spectre of that rapturous reception almost twenty years ago.
It’s still a hell of a show. A comedy that’s so black it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. The courtly shenanigans of Marlowe’s Edward II exploding in a Soho dance hall in the birthing pains of rock and roll, it’s Reservoir Hound Dogs with quiff-sharp, pre-Lock Stock cockney dialogue. Silver Johnny is the latest youth sensation, part of that early generation of performers who saw coffee shops and underground bars rip out their jukeboxes and plumb in a home-grown alternative to America’s pelvisy superstars. He’s the golden boy caught up in a very British, very minor gang war between two rival promoters, and we watch the aftermath of his sudden disappearance unfold across one sticky, stale-beer and sweat afternoon.
In this first play, Butterworth’s command of language and rhythm is already on its way to truly remarkable. Cliché it may be, but there’s a beat and a flow to Mojo’s scenes that keeps sweet time with the music of the 50’s, or how that music must have sounded to untainted ears. Tight and slinky, spangled with controlled explosions. Peculiarly, just as Pinter made a cameo as Ezra in the sloppy film version (a character who remains offstage in the play…more or less), his language makes a fleeting appearance in two or three moments, where Butterworth sacrifices his own voice for a fractured lyricism that apes his idol. It’s not a problem, not the kind of problem it became by the time he sat down to unwrite himself in The Winterling, but it’s odd – it snags somehow.
There’s a sense in which Mojo is a simple, brutal siege drama, and it’s effectively witty and claustrophobic on this level. Perhaps more than any other play of the 90’s, Butterworth’s predicted the generic collapsing of television and film into theatre that can be seen equally in the storytelling and visual diction of Three Kingdoms and the unstemmable flood of silver screen classics into the musty houses of Theatreland. Mojo’s dialogue is so punchy you’ll want an ice-pack in the interval to bring the swelling down.
But it’s Mojo’s other side that really impresses, where you can see the man who would write Jerusalem start to warm to his genius. There’s that classic History-play structure, for starters, and its re-interpretation as an unchivalrous chivalry of Brylcreem and sequins. Silver Johnny’s jacket is the most obvious armour substitute, but Butterworth has caught the crucial truth at the centre of that first great youth movement. That sense of young men discovering that their beauty and their style had a currency of its own that could trump the creaking, grey rules and systems of their elders. That looks could be leveraged and drugs could be dealt and arse could be sold. That there were ways of getting ahead, and of putting a new beat to the old world, but that playing the game was dangerous, because when you grab life by the scruff of the neck you’d better be sure there aren’t razors under the collar.
Ben Whishaw’s performance as corpse-eyed, unhinged Baby dominates the production. As gorgeous as he is terrifying, he embodies that switchblade danger and pill-buzzed sensuality to perfection. He’s a character who’s so badly damaged you can hardly make him out for the jagged, mangled edges, and his scenes with Colin Morgan’s pitiable Skinny are the production’s best.
Brendan Coyle is assured as Mickey too, the older man in a younger, more desperate world. He has a bouncer’s aloof solidity, and an authoritative grip on proceedings that subtly hints at how hard he’s holding on.
It’s in the scenes between Sweets and Potts, played by Rupert Grint and Daniel Mays respectively, that the play feels weaker and thinner than it should. Mays proves himself an accomplished comic actor in the 70’s sitcom mould, but Rickson’s direction finds his quick-fire exchanges with Grint slightly try-hard and over-egged. For all of Butterworth’s firecracker dialogue, so spiky and vital on the page, they could almost be swapping cracks in that pub from Only Fools and Horses. It’s an early reminder that Mojo is at heart a comedy (and it was as a comedy that it scooped that Olivier on its debut) but it feels the wrong kind of comedy – too broad and, sad as it is to say, visibly dated.
By far the most accomplished actor in his year at Hogwarts, Rupert Grint’s first stage outing lacks focus, constantly playing catch-up with the text. When Baby half-jokingly rounds on him and accuses him of being a cunt – a hail-fellow-well-met cunt but a cunt nonetheless, a cunt deep down – it rings false because Grint has failed to tease the truth out of Baby’s assessment.
Rickson’s direction in the later scenes is fantastic, however, and things improve immeasurably when the action moves downstairs into the bar of Ultz’s evocative, unflashy set. It is, at the end of the day, Baby’s play, and Rickson and Whishaw work in quick-step synch to deliver what must surely be one of the year’s best performances.
Not quite the knife to the guts it might have been it that blistering summer of 1995 then, but you still wouldn’t want to bump into Mojo down a dark alley.
Written for Exeunt