For anyone who has never seen Jez Butterworth’s Mojo, you would be forgiven for nevertheless finding it familiar. Debuting to great acclaim in 1995, the play probably had a greater influence on the British film world than it did the stage, purportedly inspiring the cult 1998 film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (although obviously not, as this production’s advertising mistakenly claims, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs as well), which in turn generated a mini-boom in the Cockney gangster genre that had been largely lying fallow since the seminal Get Carter (1971).
Detailing the travails of an inept handful of (very) small-time mobsters who run afoul of the real thing, Mojo gives us an entertaining vision of a 1958 London obsessed with imported Rock & Roll and American fashions, yet still profoundly British almost to the point of caricature. Make no mistake though, this is definitely a black comedy; let’s just say that when these crims find their missing Boss, he’s in two bins. Overflowing with howlingly funny one-liners and colourful macho insults, this revival of last year’s successful season at Manly’s Star of the Sea elicited belly-laughs aplenty from its Belvoir St. audience.
Director Henry Jennings, moonlighting as the would-be top dog Mickey, has gathered an ensemble who inhabit these cockney gangsters with gusto. Perhaps repeat viewings of Lock, Stock have attuned their ears, but the accents displayed in the production are largely excellent, which is quite a credit to the actors given that no dialect coach is credited. The familiar brickwork of Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre works brilliantly, giving the club backroom an instant credibility with little need for set dressing beyond the prop furniture, including a rather splendid old jukebox. Rounded out with some outrageous period coiffs and costumes (including some painfully tight trousers), you are quickly sucked into the seedy world of Butterworth’s imagined ‘50s Soho.
Gary West as Potts and James Deeth as Sweets are especially good as the play’s central double act; the former plays the frustrated, pragmatic “ideas man” like it was written for him, while the latter is hilarious as his jittering, cowardly offsider who spends the entire play completely wired from various amphetamines. West and Deeth make a great team, and while Mojo is very much an ensemble piece they are by far the most well-drawn characters.
Jennings’ cranky Mickey and Patrick McGee as the whingeing, manipulative Skinny hold their own in somewhat less rewarding roles, filling out the core group. Although Blake Wells has very little stage time as the play’s MacGuffin Sliver Johnny, he does have his moment in the spotlight, literally, by getting the play off with a bang via his energetic Rock & Roll routine.
Regrettably though, the marvelous energy of the Act One seemed to almost evaporate during interval, as the remainder of the play noticeablly sagged. Although it’s not really giving any of the plot away (like most good noirish tales: plot-schmot), I can say that the dramatic arc of the second half of the play essentially relies on ever-escalating tension, predominantly generated by the unpredictable actions of Baby, the gang’s resident nutcase. A familiar archetype, he’s the seemingly ineffectual joker, off in his own little world who no one takes very seriously until it becomes clear that he is, in fact, a violent sociopath.
Unfortunately for this production, Capkin Van Alphen just didn’t quite manage to deliver Baby’s necessary sense of menace. This is a shame, as the charismatic actor is very effective at portraying the character’s initially cloying persona, turning on the charm and knocking out rock tunes and moves with aplomb. However, in failing to flip to the other side of the coin and become convincingly scary, and with the rest of the cast unable to compensate, the tension of Act Two just didn’t hold. A pity, given the strong material and excellent first act.
However, the play’s final big shock still managed to prompt quite a few gasps, and the strong performances of West and Deeth salvaged the play’s concluding moments.
Phantom Management Presents
by Jez Butterworth
Venue: Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre | 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills
Dates: 7 - 25 February 2007
Times: Tue 7pm, Wed - Sat 8.15pm, Sun 5.15pm
Tickets: Preview (Wednesday 7th) $20, Full $29, concession $23, Tuesday 'pay what you can' (min $10)
Bookings: 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au
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