THEATRE Mojo Royal Court Downstairs, London

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The Independent Culture
Mojo, the debut play of 25-year-old Jez Butterworth, stormed straight on to the mainstage of the Royal Court in the summer of 1995, went on to win the Oliver Award for Best New Comedy and earned for its author both the Evening Standard and the George Devine Awards for Most Promising Playwright. The hippest kid on the block is not exactly short, then, of fully-paid-up devotees, so he will excuse me if I opt, at this stage, for only trial membership of his fanclub.

I was on holiday when the play opened and I catch up with it now in Ian Rickson's recent, wonderfully well acted and rhythmically superb revival at the Court's Theatre Downstairs (nee the Duke of York's). Mojo's first enraptured reviewers had no anxiety about Butterworth's influences, describing his cold-eyed foray into the Soho of the late Fifties in terms of everything from "Beckett on speed" and "Reservoir Dogs remade as a Carry On" to a cross between American Buffalo and Pinter's Dumb Waiter.

Comparisons like that don't do a young playwright any damage at all and they are not without justification. Butterworth has a brilliant ear for the kind of deadpan demotic that indicates that the speaker has had at the very least a morality bypass. Take this exchange between the psychotic son of a man who has been sliced in half by rivals and the youth who is trying to stop him, with good reason, from going to get some ice for his drink: "In with the ice?" "Yeah, it was my idea. Just until further notice." "Both halves?" "Yes. No. The legs are in the Frigidaire". "In the Frigidaire up there?" "Pretty much." It's that's shrugging "Pretty much" that's the stroke of genius and not just because, given the state of the deceased, any idiom that turns, even unwittingly, on the idea of the idea of proportion is bound to be in celestially bad taste.

Doubts kept nagging at me all the way through, though. Butterworth does not set out to create a Soho that is historically authentic, but a Fifties Soho of his imagining. But it's one thing for, say, Damon Runyon to create his stylised New York because the ethical stakes are so much lower. The same procedure in Butterworth's case allows for a slick and dubious elision of the Tarantino morality of the present day and the morality of the Fifties. It lets the playwright off the hook of being faithful to either. Reviewers fell back on the defence that the playwright had fashioned a "self-consistent world." An Allied Carpets shop is a self-consistent world but this doesn't mean you have to rave about it.

Another worry is that Butterworth's view of his characters is, in the final analysis, as heartless as that taken by Paul Reynolds's cute-faced young psychotic, Baby. Having once, when he was a child, had to help his dad run down and butcher a cow to provide meat for the caff seems to have been quite a formidable influence on Baby. Do we care? Is the Pope Jewish? And, interestingly, it's Micky, the least well drawn of the main characters who is shown experiencing a kind of remorse. Tottering and keeping on talking to his male associates as he bleeds to death from a wound, Skinny (Darren Tighe) is in the same position as Shakespeare's Mercutio, but, morally speaking, on a quite different planet.

To Nov 9 (Booking: 0171-565 5000)

Paul Taylor

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