Sometimes it just won’t start. You check the battery, oil, coolant and tyre pressures, but the bloody thing just won’t go. You push it out of the garage to try and clutch-start it, but it just sputters and farts. And so it is, unfortunately, with Jez Butterworth’s Mojo, his 1995 play the Brits seem to hold close to their hearts, but which failed to engage mine.
Nor did its admittedly darkly wicked sense of humour truly entertain me, other than now and then, here and there. This isn’t to say Sydney Theatre Company’s latest isn’t a good production: it’s robust in every department. It’s the play I find problematic and puzzling. The affection and regard for it, even more so. In short, I don’t get it. Why stage it? Why here? Why now? Is the reflected glory of his greater, later play, Jerusalem, an adequate excuse to rerun his debut, a modest rock ’n’ roll thriller?
Sure, it has a certain beat poetic rhythm to it, but the vernacular isn’t ours and, for a good deal of the play (certainly early on), what might’ve been relatable or decipherable was lost to poor diction from at least a couple of actors.
It’s the autumn of 2014, Sydney. Vivid has adorned the bridge with what looks for all the world like fluoro tubing. Gasp. But in Wharf 1, it’s 1958. Rock ’n’ roll has been banned by the Iranian government and Elvis has been drafted, but it’s still big in Britain. Johnny Silver plies his raucous, rough trade at The Atlantic Club, in seedy Soho. Johnny is owned, for all intents and purposes, by club boss, Ezra, who, even as Johnny sings (causing “polite young ladies come their cocoa”), is negotiating with Sam Ross, a mover and shaker with all the right contacts. But Ezra, as it turns out, isn’t long for this world and therein the thick plottens. Ezra and Ross are figures so shadowy, we never actually see them; which, admittedly, is an ingenious conceit for preserving their mystique and gigantism. Meanwhile, Ezra’s underlings, eye-poppingly pumped on speed, imagine all kinds of scenarios that might be to their benefit, but events are to take a rather different turn.
Really, it’s just an excuse to throw together some colourfully idiomatic East Enders: it’s The Bill, or Minder, only darker. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough: it’s neither funny enough or gruesome enough (notwithstanding Ezra being cleft in two, each half being consigned in separate garbage bins); clever enough or pointed enough.
Johnny’s missing in action, too. Given that he’s become flavour-of-the-month hot property, every effort is devoted to his repatriation. Ross is assumed to be behind all these machinations, but it turns out to be something of an inside job.
Narratively, it takes a restless half-hour or so to ramp up or even begin to reveal its cards. And there other needlessly drawn-out, self-indulgent (on the part of the writer) scenes which made me restless and had my mind wandering off, like a dog without a lead.
It’s all a bit of a shame, since everyone involved in the production has lived up to expectations. Jeremy Davidson (who you might know as erstwhile lead singer of The Snowdroppers, albeit as Johnny Wishbone; his is a life of aliases) is every bit as charismatic as he needs to be in his cameos as Johnny Silver. Eamon Farren is excellent as the annoying, weedy, whiny Skinny. It was a shame we lost Sam Haft, as Baby, but Lindsay Farris has done an astonishing job, not only stepping into the breach at the eleventh hour, but inhabiting the role of Baby, Ezra’s abused son (there are countless allusions to man-on-man and man-on-boy action), with a creepy, seething calm that occasionally explodes into Clockwork Orange-tinged temper tantrums. Josh McConville is standout as Potts, Ben O’Toole strong as Sweets, while Tony Martin, who hasn’t been on an STC stage for 28 years, arguably gets one of the roles of his career as hard man and, as it turns out, dark horse, Mickey.
In the background, Alon Ilsar smashes and crashes his drumkit to dramatic effect: for mine, more dramatically and menacingly than the script itself. Guitarist Paul Kilpinen also torments his instrument, so that it veritably yowls in the night. Pip Runciman’s set works a grungy treat; Nicholas Rayment’s lighting dingily complements; David Fleischer’s period costumes will ring elder baby boomer bells; Charmian Gradwell seems to have outdone herself as voice and text coach; Gavin Robins’ movement direction keeps thing visceral and testosterone-primed. Again, it’s all good, as they say.
And director Iain Sinclair pulls all the strings like a marionette master.He obviously loves the play. But I don’t. Does it show?
Featured image by Brett Boardman