Written in 1995, Jez Butterworth’s Mojo is often credited with reviving the urban gangster genre, typified in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Now almost twenty years old, the play has lost none of its youthful exuberance and swagger, its rock’n’roll charm and its classic downward spiral of a revenge thriller-tragedy. Presented here by Sydney Theatre Company, Mojo is the story of a group of would-be teddy-boy petty criminals in 1950s
, with the stars of fame, fortune and success
firmly in their eyes. London
Crucially, the play is grounded in a very tangible and gritty world, and on Pip Runciman’s set – a curved cavernous space, stage at one end, an office reached by a tightly spiralling staircase above it – the sweaty seedy amphetamine-fuelled underbelly of Fifties London is brought firmly into the here and now. Dressed in David Fleischer’s period costumes, the cast swagger and strut around the space, looking and thinking like they own the world, all set to live music by Alon Ilsar, Paul Kilpinen and Jeremy Davidson.
Butterworth’s undercurrent of muscular masculine machismo ripples and throws itself around through his dialogue and Iain Sinclair’s tight direction. Mojo, importantly, is not about gangsters per se, but rather people who think they are – or at least know – gangsters, but aren’t themselves. Instead, they’re all like kids in the playground, playing, acting – none of it is really real except, perhaps, towards the end. And it’s very funny too, in a thrillingly deliciously black kind of way; it is, after a fashion, a kind of rock’n’roll comedy of errors.
The production itself, while handsome and appropriately period to look at, feels slightly off-kilter, though I suspect it is a result of Sam Haft, who was originally slated to play Baby, having to withdraw from the production. As Baby, Lindsay Farris does a grand job of the rock’n’roll psychopath, though we get more of the psychopath than rock’n’roll circus. Hopefully as the season progresses he will grow into his role and become marvellously terrifying and unhinged. There was a peculiar lack of menace and terror in Tony Martin’s Mickey, the supposed boss of the younger lads. Mickey is very much a double-agent, one who sold Baby’s father up-the-river to the larger shark Sam Ross; instead, we don’t really get much intimidation or menace, more a benign threat.
Josh McConville (Potts) is having a ball out there, as the ringmaster stage-manager of the lads, always trying to shift the situation into a more favourable light to suit his best interests but also those of the others, making sure that no one gets hurt unnecessarily. Yet again, he shows just how strong, versatile and engaging an actor he is. Eamon Farren’s Skinny is like his Mercutio, a cock-sure swaggering daredevil whose bravado is really a mask for a scared little teddy-boy with shocking breath. The final scene is especially poignant, in light of all the testosterone that has been hurled across the space in the preceding two hours.
There was an endearing bumblingness and honesty to Ben O’Toole’s Sweets who otherwise felt slightly wet as a character, though that is in no way a reflection on his performance. As Silver Johnny, the play’s macguffin, Jeremy Davidson brought his rock’n’roll swagger and magnetism as a singer and performer to open the play with a short concert. Resplendent in his silver suit and salmon-pink shirt, Davidson’s appearance in the later part of the play is astounding, not least for his ability to remain upside down and be able to walk away in a straight line at the end of it.
There’s a permanent smoke haze throughout the performance, and more than a dash of Tarantino’s blood-pumping panache. As Skinny, Baby, Mickey, Sweets and Potts bicker, argue and fight, push each other to the limit, the rock’n’roll energy hurtles through the curved tunnel-like space like a train. While perhaps not as full of the necessary terror, intimidation, verve and swagger that comes with such a period, the energy by and large was. While the Swinging Sixties were still several years off, rock’n’roll was here to stay and, then as now, there’s no denying the power music has on our emotions, our actions; its ability to spur us into action.
Theatre playlist: 27. I Know What I Am, Band of Skulls