From the first moments of Jez Butterworth's Mojo we knew the amphetamines were Speed, given the red-hot force with which a door flew open and the drum-pounding irruption of singer Silver Johnny and the enforcers of Ezra's Atlantic nightclub were, at a stroke, upon us. From then on, director Louis Beer and assistant Ksenia Dugaeva hardly gave us time to breathe as we followed the tug-of-war between rival clubs over the body and voice of Silver Johnny as a punter-puller.
The drama's set in July 1958 and
explores the sleazy underbelly and power games of
Its narrative is not of vital moment nor is a summary of it needed here. Its path is easily followed and the twist towards the end is easily guessed. A certain 'Mr Ross' featured quite large but remained shadowy and unseen; a latter-day Godot, or Mrs Gamp's imaginary friend Mrs Harris from Martin Chuzzlewit. Events beyond the club are reported at second hand rather than shown on stage. These things might be thought drawbacks, so it's a mark of Butterworth's confidence that his audience can brush them aside since the dynamo powering the drama is its characters and what they are given to do and say.
Every one of our bouncers and legmen enforcers was foul-mouthed even by contemporary standards (excise 'fuck' from the script and there's 20 mins running time down the pan), vicious and amoral; and fairly slow-witted too, though plausibly so. Their lives seemed to lack any positive purpose other than jackal-like to defend their territory and confound their rivals. Early on Louis Beer, in a fine stroke of incongruity, has them sipping tea from little china cups as their disjointed, endlessly repetitive non-sequiturs stream from their nicotine-stained lips, and this tea seemed suggestive that beneath the hard-boiled carapaces of these hoodlums there lurked nervous systems fissured by uncertainty and even a weird neediness.
Act I showed us an upper room of the club, functionally decorated by no more than six steel beer barrels, and the seating had been arranged so as to release a good-sized, elongated playing space. In Act II the barrels were re-arranged and two bins appeared (spoiler risk seals my lips) as we moved downstairs, and it was interesting how the move of level marked the increased angst among our bovver boys, now required to think rather than merely oil their flick knives and polish their knuckle dusters.
And what a cast the director had assembled. Harold Serero's Potts ("I'm a c***, that's me. That don't make me Al Capone!") and Henry Wyard's Sweets in a Freddy Mercury vest had first crack at us at the start. Serero in shirt and maroon braces had a rasping voice and thick-clotted cockney accent, and I loved the awkward care he lavished on the word 'entourage'. He moved now stiff-legged, now like a marionette as he strutted about. Wyard was a touch more aggressive, a shout his default voice. Jake Rich's Skinny, chucking a broom about as though it were a spear, knew his 40s and 50s westerns with his: "He's leaning on the bar. Is that Alan Ladd?'. He was a fighting cock raw with testosterone, beads of sweat on his face. Both Serero and Rich in particular demonstrated marvellous facility in their body language when supposedly standing still; for its equal you'd have to look to professional theatre.
Baby, the son of the club owner Ezra, was here cast with a female actor, Amelia Holt; a cunning move. Holt brings a lower voltage to proceedings, but I think we always suspected her relative calm to be illusory, so there was imminent expectation of dramatic breakdown or outburst. Told of the murder of his father, a disconnected: 'Guess what I saw out there. A Buick!" is Baby's reaction. Holt was possibly a shade tentative at the start (though this was the first night) but came on strong later, building to a powerful climax. Dominic Wetherby, last seen by me as Gogol's Crocodile, as club manager Mickey had first-class timing and a commanding voice (a trifle over-posh?), a weasel in snake's clothing.
Louis Beer's direction was just superb. It was crystal clear that endless work had been done on the actors' voices, their movement and the sordid atmosphere. The creation before us of the blood and the sweat was actual, and that of the bad breath, the testosterone and the fear all but tangible. The lighting was unyieldingly harsh and the drum accompaniment from Josh Jones was sparse but shocking.
The BT Studio was far from full on this first
night. This is a travesty and not far off a tragedy. Playing Dumb has come up
with a hand-grenade of a drama, bursting its shrapnel among its audience and
leaving us gasping as we dragged ourselves reluctantly away, checking to see
that we were still in one piece. The material is an amphetamine shot in the arm