Twenty-six-year-old Jez Butterworth has come a long way in the five years since, with bizarre inspiration, he co-scripted a stage adaptation of Katharine Whitehorn's recipe book Cooking In A Bedsitter. His first full-length non-collaborative work, Mojo, set in a Soho club in 1958, mixes sex and drugs and rock'n'roll with gang warfare and a marvellously black comic sensibility.
Silver Johnny is a hot teenage commodity, but like any commodity he can be bought, sold or simply stolen. When Johnny disappears and his manager Ezra turns up in two dustbins outside the Atlantic Club, Ezra's shady minions brace themselves for an all-out attack from the forces of Sam Ross, a man who evidently enjoys mixing business with bloodshed.
Pill-popping young foot-soldiers Sweets and Potts, first seen lurking outside the door of a business meeting trying to figure out which way the silver wind is blowing, suddenly find themselves not only facing violence from outside but having to unravel the constant power-play between the club's other denizens: gormless Skinny Luke, Ezra's lieutenant Mickey and his psychopathic son Baby.
Butterworth enjoys writing about brutal, amoral politicking and counter-politicking, and with Mojo he has hit the jackpot; he leaves the audience, like his characters, scrambling to keep up with barely suggested twists, but grimly enjoying the struggle. This is a world in which everyone is, or has ambitions to be, a horrific blend of Malcolm McLaren and Ronnie Kray. Ian Rickson's sharp, swift direction deals adroitly with the speed-fuelled, foul-mouthed chatter that ricochets off the club's sequinned walls, and elicits a clutch of cutlass-sharp performances from his cast.
Andy Serkis and Matt Bardock make a prime double-act as Potts and Sweets, trying at first to stay ahead of the game and then simply to stay in one piece. David Westhead's Mickey is a fine would-be godfather, whose quiet authority evaporates under the fear that his secret will be revealed, and Aidan Gillen transforms himself from the most compelling young Irish actor of the decade into the whining East London toe-rag Skinny who, instructed to go out and secure some fire-power, returns waving a single dinky Derringer pistol.
But the dark heart of the play is Ezra's son Baby, supplanted in his father's business and sexual affections by Silver Johnny and a lad for whom the term "mercurial" could have been coined. Tom Hollander veers terrifically in an instant from strutting his seductive stuff to murderous frenzy, as Baby's unpredictable combination of suicidal foolhardiness and native cunning gradually wrests control of the situation from the increasingly floundering Mickey.
When Mojo is good it is very, very good and when it is bad (which is seldom) it is never less than competent. Stephen Daldry's gamble on giving Butterworth a main-house show for his solo début has paid off in spades. We will hear more of this man.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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