directed by Ian Rickson
Harold Pinter Theatre
playing until 8 February
The latest West End show to attract some big household names, Mojo is giving everything else a run for its money in terms of gathering a stellar small- and big-screen cast. Featuring Daniel Mays (Ashes to Ashes, Mrs Biggs), Ben Whishaw (Skyfall, The Hour), Colin Morgan (Merlin), Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey) and, to top it all, the professional stage début of everyone’s favourite Weasley, there’s certainly a lot to tempt TV and movie fans into the theatre. But it’s worth noting that — aside from Rupert Grint — all these actors have solid theatrical pedigree and, combined with the unarguable talents of magical playwright-director combo Jez Butterworth and Ian Rickson, there’s no doubting that this ensemble is more than suitable for the stage.
One of Butterworth’s earlier works (first performed in 1995), Mojo appears on the surface to be more gritty and realistic, a far cry from the elemental mysticism inherent in the celebrated Jerusalem (2009), or the eerie ambiguity of The River (2012). Yet behind the visual humour, gangland dangers and 1950s slang, there is something still mysterious in this world — something about the fear of unseen enemies and the building paranoia that unbalances the solid ground we at first believe we’re resting on.
It’s hard to fault the individual performances, as all the cast are on top form. Kicking off the real action of the play, Daniel Mays (Potts) and Rupert Grint (Sweets) quickly establish themselves as a great double act, bouncing off each other’s nervous energy and forming a tight comic duo. There are moments when Grint is a little Ron Weasley-like, it’s true, but luckily it works here — his sudden panic and extreme nervousness at danger, despite his obvious inclinations for rule-breaking, fit both characters quite neatly. Incidentally, as hard as I tried to forget Ron Weasley, there is inescapably some humour to be found in Grint’s first few lines, in the idea of a star of the biggest ever children’s franchise swearing quite so much: it’s as if we get the chance to hear what Ron would really say, if Warner Bros weren’t tied to a PG or 12A certificate. How much variety Grint truly has as an actor may remain to be seen, but for now this certainly doesn’t detract from what is a fine stage début.
It is Daniel Mays who truly steals the show however, handling the verbose script with ease: these are not the kind of gangsters who bark orders and threats in gruff monotones. Rather, they find themselves out of their depth and attempt to clamber free through rhetoric. I didn’t expect to laugh so much during this show, and many of these chuckles and guffaws were thanks to Mays and his fantastic portrayal of Potts, employing small yet precise gestures and movements to create effortless hilarity. In an interview with The Guardian back in November, Ian Rickson named him as one of the actors “who can speak Butterworth”, and seeing the show I suddenly grasped what he meant: this is a perfect pairing if ever there was one.
Elsewhere Whishaw, last seen playing the inspiration behind Peter Pan in John Logan’s Peter and Alice, appears as another kind of ‘lost boy’ in the apparently fragile and damaged Baby. Battling his anger and the demons of this past throughout the play, he is ostensibly the most naive of the bunch, yet in the end proves the most decisive, with Whishaw as always giving a wonderfully nuanced performance and proving himself, yet again, to be one of the most versatile actors in contemporary British theatre. Colin Morgan is the most pleasant surprise of the evening: knowing him only as the face of BBC’s Merlin, his confident performance impresses, growing stronger through the second act in particular.
The plot does risk stagnancy, as Butterworth’s evident mastery of language — whether lyrical musing, frenzied babble or hilarious backtracking — at times overpowers any driving force of the show, leaving the feeling that we could be heading for an abyss of words. Certain plot details (such as Baby’s history of sexual abuse, suddenly mentioned after the interval) are rather unsatisfactorily thrown in. Yet the strong cast manage to save the play from these potential pitfalls, and as the perceived noose tightens around this gang’s necks, the rather fractured ensemble of the early scenes tightens. The characters circle each other warily, the power balance shifting until the truth is finally revealed in an action-packed denouement.
For all the darkness and morbidity in this play, there are many laugh-out-loud moments, which keep the audience hooked and allow the cast to display their range. Above all, Mojo doesn’t feel like a revival of a 19-year-old play, for which the cast and director Ian Rickson should be given credit. All actors, but Mays and Whishaw in particular, are given space to create the roles afresh, maintaining Mojo as a dynamic show that is well worth a watch.