Review: Mojo (White Bear Theatre, London)

mojo flyer imqge_1Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An intense tinder-box production that brings Jez Butterworth’s phenomenal first play into quarters so close that the tension is unbearable.

Overview

Potts, Sweet, Skinny, and Baby all work at a Soho club. Their boss, Ezra, is about to make it big over a deal concerning a hit young singer, Silver Johnny. But as they celebrate, Ezra gets murdered and the club is set under siege. Can this drugged-up band of misfits keep it together, defend the club, and save their hides?

Writing

This play took the Royal Court by storm when Butterworth presented it as his début back in 1995. It was praised for its dark humour and unflinchingly fluid dialogue. Rather than this being a play about gangsters, it’s more a play about the camaraderie of a group of men who believe they’ve grown up but have done everything but.

Butterworth is quite open that Harold Pinter is a huge influence on his work, and here it’s really apparent. But in bringing out these seemingly inane repetitions and circular conversations, we find some very real and wildly charismatic characters. Despite these very definite text stylisations, it actually compliments the fact that they’re mostly off their faces on narcotics, and later broken of spirit, mind, and sense. As unlikeable and/or pitiful as they are, they’re still utterly absorbing to watch through Butterworth’s masterful handling of the text.

He manages to prise a deft and bleak comedy out of the characters, dialogue and situations. The characters often go off on bewildering and audacious tangents, belittling the dire situation that they’re trying to face turning the severe into guff as hilarious as it is ridiculous, at the drop of the hat. It’s an exhausting switch of pace and timbre that’s both unsettling and ecstatic.

But whilst the comic element of the play is one it’s most noticeable facets, the real coup de grace is the tight and tense action that Butterworth has created here. You genuinely can’t tell where the story is going to take you next and there’s more than several surprises. Darker themes are explored unapologetically, augmenting the sense of tense mystery, foreboding, and general twisted nature of the plot. But when the proverbial really hits the fan, it’s a complete edge-of-your seat adrenaline rush: a slick and violent comic thriller that gives Tarentino a run for his money.

Direction & Production

Director Sebastien Blanc has really struck gold with this production. Rather than finding the intimate space of the White Bear Theatre a challenge, he works with it in perfect accord to lift the production into something that’s absolutely phenomenal. It does still feel like a tiny space, but he really uses it to create a claustrophobic sense of cabin theatre that is just perfect for this play. He also manages to meticulously pilot the pace and action, making sure that nothing is left to wobble or be diminished by misplaced timing. He also ensures everything is as vividly visceral and natural as it can be. You never doubt the authenticity or the plausibility of the plot, as there’s a real sense of flow and organic quality to everything that happens.

In addition, Blanc has got an exceptional production team behind him. Particularly, set designer Joana Dias has spared no effort in her contribution. The set is brimming with tiny details and nuances, from untidy stacks of poker chips, saucy pin-up posters, clutters of drink cans, to dirty, tattered, and musty period furniture. You could swear that you had actually found yourself in this dingy back room of an actual 1950s Soho club, rather than the theatre space of a humble 2010s Kennington sports pub. It just adds to the sense of realism, helping the audience gets sucked into this broken and debauched world. Even the contents of the dustbins, which cannot even be seen by most of the audience, are approached with just as much eye for detail and sense comprehensive quality as the rest of the set. Not to mention some special effects that are certainly not for the squeamish. Productions of this scale of detail are rare to find on the Fringe, and this is incredibly impressive, giving the play a palpable sense of reality that compounds the already intense experience.

The only fault I can find is that there’s a gunshot sound effect that breaks the suspension of disbelief at a rather crucial moment. But this is certainly excused given just how meticulous the rest of the show is.

Cast

The cast, too, are also extraordinary. They revel in the play’s text and really embrace their characters to the core. What’s more, is that they really bounce off each other’s personalities and energies, especially juxtaposed to Oscar Blend’s staunch and bullying Mikey, who tries to make order out of his colleagues chaos. However, certain members of the cast really shine through.

Max Saunders Singer is fantastic as Potts. He gives an incredibly high spirited performance throughout. Especially, mind-riddled with narcotics, he twitches and splutters tremendously through his part, making him fascinating to watch. What’s more, is that he not only has a grand command over his stage presence as an actor, but is also able to channel this into his character’s presence and dominance of Pott’s associates. Charming yet conniving, he excels as being the unlikely wrist attempting to turn the screw.

But Luke Trebilcock is the real show stealer. Detached and unhinged, he gives an electric and unprecedented performance. Incredibly controlled and taut, Trebilcock gives a performance of power and might that will make you feel tangibly afraid of Baby’s unsound and scattershot state of mind. He’s as creepy and unnerving as they come, and really adds to the fizzing and dangerous energy of the show.

Verdict

Shows like this are the reason I’ll always love the fringe, as this is a theatrical experience that you just can’t extrapolate to bigger stages. The play is already like a tightly pact piece of plastic explosive with a slow-burning and suspenseful fuse. But in the hands of Blanc and his company, stuffing it into the intimate space of the White Bear Theatre, it turns into an unbearably tense and nerve-shredding thriller of epic proportions. I don’t want to see another toffee apple for a long time!

[youtube http://youtu.be/SF0FKmNOHOA]

Mojo runs at the White Bear Theatre, SE11 4DJ, until 21 September 2014. Tickets are £14 (concessions available). To book, visit http://whitebeartheatre.co.uk.

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