The White Bear Theatre is a near-perfect venue for Jez Butterworth’s breakthrough play about a dodgy gang in 1950s Soho, and this brilliant production, directed by Sebastien Blanc, makes full use of the intimate space. At one point, one of the characters lifts a sword above his head, and the front row visibly flinches.
Mojo is nasty, in many ways. Its main characters are bigoted, filthy-minded, on the make and unscrupulous. Ezra, their boss and the owner of the club they work for, is a paedophile. They bicker and brawl. They drink and take pills and chat shit. They are also very funny, intensely charismatic and surprisingly vulnerable.
The club’s star act, an Elvis-like singer called Silver Johnny, is the bait in a deal with a rival gangster. But the plan goes awry, and Ezra ends up very dead, his body dumped in two bins. On a hot July weekend, his former colleagues store his legs in the ice-box and his head in the frigidaire and hole up in the club to await the fall of further retribution. It’s a tinderbox, and sparks fly in Blanc’s production. Joana Dias’s set is beautifully detailed, transforming the space from an upstairs office into the club itself between the first and second acts, while retaining the claustrophobic sleaziness essential to both settings. A fantastic cast deliver impressively high-octane performances fuelled by this atmosphere.
Particular mention has to go to Max Saunders Singer as Sid Potts, a swaggering ball of amphetamine-aided confidence who gradually deflates throughout the play. Every sneer is delivered with real dramatic intelligence and nuance, whether it’s spat out with the saliva gathered from the giant pieces of pink gum that Potts is constantly chewing, or floated like a smell in the air, complete with waggling fingers and dainty steps to follow the point through. Luke Trebilcock as Baby, Ezra’s son, is another tour de force, a broken man surviving by swinging between neurotic energy and the suggestion of a hidden core of strength. But this is still an ensemble performance; both Jack Heath as Sweets and Max Warwick as Skinny provide strong support. Every line is snatched and delivered perfectly off the bounce of its cue, and the tension never lets up.
Ultimately, the detail and thought that have gone into this production mean that it does full justice to Butterworth’s snarling script, acknowledging its moments of tenderness and sharpening its edge of menace. The result is an invigorating show with the rock and roll power of Little Richard’s “awopbopaloobop-alopbamboom”.
Mojo is playing the White Bear Theatre until 21 September. For more information and tickets, see the White Bear Theatre website.