Theatre: Not much of a body... but great parts
Tuesday 30 December 1997
Reservoir Dogs meets Espresso Bongo, or Absolute Beginners meets Glengarry Glen Ross? Whichever way you slice it, Jez Butterworth's tale of small- time Soho gangsters in the era of pop music's infancy boils down to a beguiling game of theatrical cross-talk in which, while the sum may mean less than its parts (and it does), the stage is held convincingly throughout and the machine gun rat-tat-tat of the characters' heroic swearing more than takes the day.
First seen at the Royal Court in the summer of 1995 (and now re-worked into a soon-to-be-released movie), Mojo is receiving its British regional premiere in a new production (by Ian Hastings) that proves quite triumphantly that Butterworth's debut drama has the legs to sustain a life beyond its initial modish success. That another set of legs - severed from their body - are on stage in a dustbin for much of the action only adds to the piquancy of the piece.
With the benefit of a couple of years' critical perspective, the world of Mojo now seems satisfyingly familiar. The gangsters are out of Tarantino; the milieu is Colin MacInnes given a hefty amphetamine spin; and the dialogue is a cocktail of Mamet's Chicago mixed with the home-brewed Lucozade of good old cockney curses. All those Fifties British-movie cliches of zombie- like teenagers shaken into a trance by American rock 'n' roll live again in the figures of coffee-bar teen-idol Silver Johnny and the monstrous Baby, the son of sawn-off club owner Ezra (whose legs are in the bin). As far as the plot goes, Silver Johnny has been kidnapped by a George Raft-like Mafia encroacher, and the staff of Ezra's Soho club are thus in a bit of a pickle. As in Reservoir Dogs, Macbeth or even Waiting for Godot, most of the real action occurs off-stage, and what remains is the cross-talk. And as in those illustrious examples, it's enough to hold the attention.
Fittingly, it's the acting that takes the biscuit. As the hopeless heavy, Potts, William Ely gives a bravura performance of quite outstanding quality. Initially holding the stage alone with his spar, Sweets (played with a brilliantly edgy comic force by Justin Shelvin), Ely plays the sweaty, speed-fuelled no-hoper to the hilt. Like the Three Stooges as re-worked by The Fast Show, Ely and Shelvin together make up a mad double-act - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in loafers - whose energy carries the play beyond an often sorely tried suspension of disbelief. As Baby, Anton Saunders starts fitfully - basically, he's bonkers - but grows throughout to become a convincingly chilling protagonist. Ross Boatman, as the Kray-like gangster Mickey, is perhaps less scary than the role demands, but the power of the ensemble is sufficient to see the play through.
Ultimately, perhaps, Mojo represents a triumph of incidental detail over the long view. For future generations of teenagers cramming the exam text, there's little sociological detail about either the Fifties or the Nineties to get their teeth into. But if, in the end, the resolution of the plot counts for less than the brilliance of the dialogue that leads up to it, that's fair enough: Butterworth has created a language for the theatre that teems with powerful images, both verbal and visual. Mojo might be a three-minute single rather than an album, but that in itself is a recommendation. It's one hell of a riff; the concept can come later.
To 17 Jan, New Vic Studio. Tickets: 0117-987 7877
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