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A CurtainUp London London Review

"He knows why he's there. He's paid to warble and look pretty. He ain't paid to give it large in the back room." — Potts
Ben Whishaw as Baby (Photo: Simon Annand)
The first Jez Butterworth play I saw, I loved. The Night Heron was set in East Anglia in the fenland outside Cambridge where I had spent some of my childhood. His very big hit Jerusalem and more recently, The River, were also set in the English countryside and the stories are imbued with rural atmosphere. Parlour Song which I liked less was partly about new housing encroaching on the countryside. London's first production of Butterworth's first play, Mojo in the mid 1990s was just as I started reviewing in London and I missed seeing it.

The new cast is a huge draw with theatre actors well known in television and film: Brendan Coyle, Downton Abbey's valet Mr Bates, Colin Morgan BBC television's Merlin, Ben Whishaw of the BBC drama about early television reportage, The Hour and Rupert Grint, the red head sidekick to Harry Potter, Ron Weasley. Add a very fine actor whom I know from the theatre, although he has also appeared in many television programmes, Daniel Mays, who has a superb physical and comic range to complete a dream cast.

For those expecting to see a repeat from the Jerusalem team of director Ian Rickson and writer Jez Butterworth, there may be disappointment. Mojo is set in an urban setting in the late 1950s in a sleazy Soho club where the draw of the jukebox is being replaced by a live rock singer, Silver Johnny (Tom Rhys Harries) in the shaking leg manner of Elvis Presley. The pill popping sidekicks of Potts (Daniel Mays) and pill pusher Sweets (Rupert Grint) spend much of the play waiting for others to appear like those in a play by Beckett. Through Potts and Sweets, we hear about the excitement generated by silver Johnny and his female fan base, a commodity the club owners will vie for.

Ben Whishaw is Baby, son of the club's co-owner Ezra who, losing the gangland battle has a grizzly fate in two dustbins. The play is more like Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels about London's underbelly gangland or films by Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction when torture and cruelty were shocking and cool. Skinny (Colin Morgan) is an imitator of Baby, copying his clothes and hairstyle much to the irritation of the original. The hairstyles are wonderful, the teddy boy's greased quiff with all that comb maintenance and that off the face style makes Whishaw and Morgan look completely different from their normal fringed style.

The performances from Whishaw and Mays are outstanding: Ben Whishaw as we have never seen him before, hard and cruel and ironically named Baby. His voice sounds very different and we are impressed by his range and his singing voice. With his shirt off he is muscular although the orange tan didn't add to the picture. Daniel Mays with his frowning forehead has a body elasticity, a unique way of moving which is naturally comic. Both these actors have played at the Royal Court where Butterworth's plays were first performed. Grint is very much the sidekick to Mays but his performance is creditable. Colin Morgan spends one scene with his trousers round his ankles, in his underpants and tied to the jukebox after one of Baby's temper tantrums. Baby is the sinister ice hearted villain of this piece, damaged by his father, abused as a child, there is no warming to his personality.

Ultz's realistic set is a backroom at the club and in the second act the club's main spangled playing area where the hangers on, like children, are stranded with only cake to eat. Maybe my expectations were too high but I found the 2013 Mojo unpleasant but underwhelming.

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Written by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Ian Rickson

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Colin Morgan, Brendan Coyle, Rupert Grint, Daniel Mays
With: Tom Rhys Harries
Designed by Ultz
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Lighting: Charles Balfour
Sound: Simon Baker
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7622
Booking to 25th January 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th November 2013 performance at the Harold Pinter, Panton Street, London SW1Y 4DN (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)

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