Following the success of Jez Butterworth’s Olivier-winning, Broadway-conquering Jerusalem, his debut play, Mojo, is receiving a star-studded revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre. First produced in 1995 at the Royal Court, it launched the career of the man who has since become one of the most roundly successful and acclaimed playwrights of his generation.
Indeed, with hindsight, Mojo is a clear mission statement, Butterworth sowing the seeds of the work that was follow. Set in a 1950s Soho nightclub, it’s a searing, kitschy, claustrophobic comedy, populated by absurdist motor-mouthed teddy boys, cracking one-liners to avoid staring into the abyss of their petty lives.
In short, it’s all just a bit cool. I don’t mean that flippantly. Being a bit cool is what Butterworth has built a career on. It’s the source of his powers and his greatest weakness. He’s a truly rock ‘n’ roll playwright; all sass and no substance, his plays only ever gesture to something grander and more meaningful beyond their immediate, superficial pleasures.
The first act is, admittedly, blisteringly entertaining. It opens on Potts (Daniel Mays) and Sweets (Rupert Grint), two affable underlings of a small-time mobster/nightclub owner called Ezra. Popping amphetamines, Potts and Sweets sit jittering outside the club’s back office, as their boss negotiates the sale of his star performer, Silver Johnny (Tom Rhys Harris), with a rival gang lord. In a Godot-like effort to ‘pass the time’, the two smoke, sweat and chatter incessantly in a wickedly crass wide-boy patter: Potts’ marvelling at the hip-swinging Johnny’s supernatural ability to make ‘polite young ladies come in their cocoa’ is but one instant quotable, delivered with relish by Mays.
But amid these fiery exchanges, something more sinister lurks. Baby (Ben Wishaw), the bosses’ son and the club’s resident, immaculately coiffed bit of eye-candy, stalks in and out of the scene. His slow-speaking, childlike manner belying a chilly, psychopathic aura.