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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Mojo
Harold Pinter Theatre  Winter  2013-2014

Imagine, if you will, a play that combines the quiet menace of early Pinter with the wild farce and rather endearing determination to be shocking of Joe Orton. 

Add in the casual violence of a Tarantino film and the joyful gore of Martin McDonagh, set it in the world of a typical British gangster movie, and you have some idea of the flavour of Jez Butterworth's 1995 debut play. 

Clearly not for all tastes, but if you like this sort of thing, you'll love Mojo. 

In a 1950s Soho nightclub some junior gangsters are waiting while their boss does business with a rival (The McGuffin, a rock-n-roll singer's contract, is almost totally irrelevant, as all good McGuffins are), hoping they'll be able to cash in on whatever deal is struck. 

A scene later they learn that said rival has terminated their boss with such extreme prejudice that he now resides in two separate rubbish bins. They may very well be next and so, when not simply panicking, they begin to turn on each other with results both comic and bloody. 

Director Ian Rickson's new production puts much more emphasis on the black comedy than I remember from 1995, with the first half-hour devoted to the innocent silliness of a couple of guys bursting out of their seats in excitement like little kids promised a circus just the other side of a door. 

And even when things turn dark, we still see more Laurel-and-Hardy style panic than real danger, more absurdity as they contemplate the boss-filled trash cans than horror. 

And therein lies this production's one weakness, because when things turn really really dark, with another offstage murder, an onstage one and a bit of torture in between, we are so thoroughly in a comic mindset that the shift in tone can't catch us up short with quite as powerful a shock as Butterworth might have hoped for. 

The driving energy of this production comes from Daniel Mays as the underling most prone to both happy excitement and wild panic. Channelling David Haig by way of Frankie Howerd, Mays runs through a seemingly endless repertoire of slow burns, double-takes, sputterings, speechless gapings, arm wavings and tics of every shape and colour – all thoroughly appropriate to the character and the moment, and all hilarious, so that despite everything else that's going on the energy level drops whenever he's offstage and you welcome his return. 

Ben Wishaw is suitably dangerous as the most tightly-wound and unpredictable of the gang, and Brendan Coyle solid as the older underboss trying to hold everything together.

(Many in the audience will have come just to see Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame. He has one of the smaller and less important roles, essentially a straight man and feed to the others, and does a serviceable job.)

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Mojo - Pinter Theatre 2013 

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