Hen & Chickens Theatre
Reviewed – 20th November 2018
“a formidable endeavour, which That Lot have been ambitious in undertaking”
New London theatre company, That Lot, along with director Kara M. Tyler, have taken on Jez Butterworth’s Mojo for their debut production. Butterworth’s first play, a dark gangster comedy which premiered at the Royal Court in 1995, is an exceedingly challenging piece which That Lot have been bold in tackling, but haven’t quite managed to pin down.
The script takes us to 1950s Soho. It’s a world of crime, drugs, and rock & roll. Pill-popping gangsters Potts (Louis Cummings), Sweets (Brad Leigh), and Skinny (Thao Nguyen) struggle to cope when second-in-command Mickey (Adam Bloom) announces their boss, Ezra, is dead. Cut in half and delivered to them in rubbish bins. The play follows the panicking of Sid, Sweets, and Skinny, who assume they’re next, and the power struggle between Mickey and Baby (Oliver Parnell), Ezra’s son, who despite being fairly unhinged, is heir to the gang and his father’s nightclub.
One of the reasons Mojo is so difficult, is it contains very little plot. The action, until the very end, is almost exclusively limited to the characters hiding out in the nightclub. Only the most incisively nuanced characterisation and expertly timed dialogue will keep an audience invested. It’s a daunting task even for the most seasoned professionals, and unfortunately the performances here don’t bring the power and maturity required to drive the play alone. The two-hour runtime makes its length felt, and I wasn’t entirely surprised to spot someone near me sleeping through the second act.
Leigh (Sweets) stands out for a first-rate performance as the pilled-up, dim-witted stooge, and Parnell (Baby) has an admirably easy confidence. However, Cummings (Potts), and Bloom (Mickey) seem less comfortable in their roles. Holes in the movement direction often leave Bloom standing awkwardly while others talk around him, further impeding the weight and dominance lacking from the performance. Nguyen (Skinny) is frequently off-tempo with his lines.
Timing is a blanket issue throughout. Mojo is fast-paced and rhythmic. The actors struggle to bounce the lines between them, and never really manage to hit a stride. The comedy in particular suffers as a result. For a play billed as a black comedy, this performance was noticeably short on laughs. Following the rocky first act, I overheard someone comment ‘tough crowd’, although of course the opposite is true of an opening night audience filled with friends and supporters.
All revivals shoulder the burden of relevance. What does a play already in the shadow of Mamet, Pinter, and Tarantino in 1995, and since buried by countless others, have to say to a 2018 audience? The issue of toxic masculinity feels like it’s been left unmined. Baby’s history of sexual abuse is muted. The statement That Lot and Tyler are making with this production doesn’t come through.
Mojo is a formidable endeavour, which That Lot have been ambitious in undertaking. There is genuinely good effort here, but this uneven production needs further development to find its mojo.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Artwork by Oliver Bloom
Hen & Chickens Theatre until 24th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: