So what do you say about a play you’ve been anticipating for months? When Mojo was first announced and I heard that Rupert Grint was going to debut in his first stage role, I was a smidge excited. Especially as he would be starring alongside Ben Whishaw, who I was dying to see on stage again after Peter and Alice. I quickly bought up tickets for the first and last preview. Then they announced Colin Morgan and I kind of went a bit nuts with the ticket buying for the rest of the run. It’s like the gods decided to put on a play with Claire’s dream cast. Because Daniel Mays and Brendan Coyle are also two that would get me to go see any show.
So you get a stellar cast like that, and a play like Mojo, and you know there’s no chance it will suck.
Writer Jez Butterworth, 25 years old at the time, debuted Mojo at the Royal Court in 1995. The play won the Olivier for Best New Comedy, and Jez won a couple of awards for Best New Playwright. It was well received, to say the least. The cast in 1995 included Tom Hollander as Baby and Aidan Gillen as Skinny, and it too was directed by Ian Rickson, as this new production is.
It’s 1958, it’s Soho, and a young 17 year old rock singer dubbed Silver Jonny (Tom Rhys-Harries), in a shiny silver suit and pink shirt, with his blond hair slicked back, and as pretty as they come, opens the show with some moves that set the scene. He disappears from stage for most of the rest of the play, mores the pity, but he’s in the back of your mind as so much of the show centres on his character. In the next scene, Sydney Potts (Daniel Mays) describes to Sweets (Rupert Grint) how the girls go wild for Silver Jonny, so wild they soil themselves. And as he says, “anything makes polite young ladies come their cocoa in public is worth taking a look at”.
It’s Ezra’s Atlantic Club and everything seems business as usual, until the next morning they find out that Ezra is dead. Sweets and Potts, along with runt of the club Skinny (Colin Morgan), Ezra’s psychotic son Baby (Ben Whishaw) and the older leader of the group Mickey (Brendan Coyle), are all terrified they might be next. They decide to sweat it out in the club for the weekend until everything has cooled down.
But tensions between the group run high, with suspicious and accusations flying, causing a strained atmosphere that you know just isn’t going to end well.
But this is a comedy, if you couldn’t tell by the synopsis. One that is dark and humorous, with constant flares of genius. I’m generally not a fan of comedy in TV and film, but on stage it seems to work for me a lot more, and I’ve enjoyed a few comedies in recent times. Mojo is the kind of play where you are nervously tittering throughout, knowing that it’s not not all going to be fun and games and waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under you.
The writing is strong, lyrical at times, and the characters nicely drawn. Sweets and Potts are a wonderful comedy duo that play off each other well, while Skinny is appropriately irritating and awkward to the point of discomfort. Baby. Well Baby is the star of the show, the unmistakable loose canon who sets you on edge in every scene and drives you crazy.
The cast in this version were very strong for a first preview. I was surprised at how strong they were in fact, though like any show they will only get better with time. Rupert Grint was surprisingly good and self assured on stage, and it was great to see him there. I’d say he’s played it a little safe for his first stage role – at times I would slip into thinking about Ron Weasley, but I am certain that will change with time. From both an acting and audience perspective. I felt just the same seeing Daniel Radcliffe in Equus and even seeing Colin Morgan in Our Private Life when I still associated him so heavily with Merlin.
But that is definitely not the case with Colin anymore. I’ve watched him shake that off very successfully and he just gets better. His Skinny is well played, and his twitchy, somewhat sleazy character plays off Ben Whishaw’s Baby so very well. There’s a barely hidden sexual tension between the two that underwrites all their interactions.
Also, cheekbones that could cut glass. I’ve never seen them pop so hard.
Ben Whishaw, of course, gives it his all. He nails the crazycakes Baby character effortlessly, barely displaying any kind of emotion, making the smile freeze on your lips. He can go from strutting around to murderous frenzy in a moment, causing the tension to ratchet up as the play moves on. His face is the one to watch throughout – his cold looks, his empty smiles, they’re all enough to remind you that this comedy isn’t light. And that Ben is one brilliant actor.
By the way, he’s also a great singer. Colour me surprised, although I shouldn’t have been since he’s just been cast as Freddie Mercury. I enjoyed his voice a lot.
Daniel Mays as Potts is hilarious. His is a stand out performance, although perhaps it’s also a stand out role, with some of the best lines in the whole play. His performance was full of energy and exuberance, pumping up the laughs and lulling you into a false sense of security with his and Sweets rather bumbling approach to everything.
Brendan Coyle was solid, but the character of Mickey did little to really focus on. He’s probably the least well drawn of the characters, but is one that shows the most remorse as the play ends.
There’s some scenes in the play that will get the fangirls going (myself included). Colin Morgan in white underpants, tied to a jukebox, being bullied by Ben Whishaw is one that will stay with you. I won’t spoil the scene, but suffice to say they get up close and personal. (And, yes, yes, I did describe Colin’s thighs as quivering earlier, which seems to have stuck with some!) Some of Baby’s ‘Kiss My Pegs’ rage is so crackling with sexual tension you want them to just do it and put us all out of our misery. Ben Whishaw, by the way, looks nothing like what you’d imagine with his shirt off. Toned, tanned and gorgeous. I always imagined him being willowy and pale, but also gorgeous.
Finally, some props to Tom Rhys-Harries who has a small role in this production and spends most of it upside down. I’ve had my eye on him for a while and it’s great to see him in a play of this calibre. I’m excited to see his career climb.
Negatives? Well it wasn’t perfect. Down to the writing mainly. There’s some plot holes to be honest, but easily overlooked. There was some nerves on stage, but let’s be fair as it was first preview. All in all, I give it a massive thumbs up. Having seen some real tosh recently on stage, it’s so brilliant to be excited about a play again.