Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mojo by Jez Butterworth

Photo: Brett Boardman

Mojo by Jez Butterworth.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Iain Sinclair, designed by Pip Runciman (set), David Fleischer (costume), Nicholas Rayment (lighting) and Steve Francis (sound).  At Wharf 1, May 17 – July 5, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 28

For many decades since the 1950s we have seen a bowdlerised and often quite sentimental view of British small-time criminal life on our tv screens.  Even the picture on the program cover, in a kind-of modern 'mod' style, makes the characters in Mojo seem rather attractive.

Over those same decades, the British stage has had Harold Pinter’s plays to take us into something more like the reality of the culture of menace in the lives of a certain stream of the lower class for whom graft and trickery provided what they saw as the only way up in the world.

Yet I had not been aware of the next generation of writers like Pinter, represented here by Butterworth in his first play, from 1995.  It was picked up immediately for the Royal Court’s main stage, making Butterworth the only first-time playwright to have this honour since John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956.  It’s no wonder that the younger Butterworth ended up a close friend of the older Pinter.  Mojo is as perceptive and subtle in reproducing the relationships between those controlling  (or wanting to control) a cheap ‘night club’ as, say, the story behind The Birthday Party.

But, perhaps beyond Pinter’s achievement, Butterworth takes us back to John Osborne’s time, and shows us the contrast between Osborne’s intellectuals messing up their middle-class lives and the seriously dangerous lives of the lower classes at the time of new possibilities of rock’n’roll.  Black humour and the rhythms of Cockney language make us laugh in the midst of social and personal tragedy.  There is no sentimentality here.

For Butterworth to write this, looking back 40 years, was remarkable, but for Iain Sinclair to create such an accurate sense of that 1950s period another 20 years later is even more so, in my eyes.  I can say this because as a young teenager in London I was brought up to be conscious of those parts of the city which were no go for our kind of family.  I knew about the Teddy Boys and was well aware of the danger.  Fortunately I had arrived in Australia by the time rock around the clock had chimed, and only had to learn about avoiding the sly grog merchants of Sydney’s Kings Cross, rather than  the extension of the violence of the early 50s Teddy Boys into the amphetamine trade and the night club music scene.

In the program there are a series of photos of 1950s street scenes, from the Mary Evans Picture Library, which I cannot reproduce here for copyright reasons, showing both the poverty of the parts of London where the Teddy Boys were active and the attitude they displayed.  For this production, not all the costumes are accurate copies of those of the day but are designed to give us the feel of characters using a kind of natty formality of dress and hair style to make themselves seem further up the social scale than they really were.  The 'duck's arse' or duck's tail hair style was a special feature  - very nicely done.

Josh McConville, Lindsay Farris, Ben O'Toole

Eamon Farren, Josh McConville

Alon Ilsar, Lindsay Farris

Lindsay Farris

Photos © Brett Boardman 2014

Stills cannot show perhaps the most remarkable feature of the acting.  The style of movement and the tonalities of voice took me straight back to my teenage days.

I had wondered before seeing the show whether the past would be a different country, perhaps not really relevant for 2014 – but the story in the news this very week of the murder of a methamphetamine carrier, perhaps by previously corrupt coppers, in the Sydney suburb of Padstow gives Mojo all the significance it needs.

Technically and acting-wise, this is another highly successful Sydney Theatre Company production, well worth the trip since it’s unlikely to come to Iain Sinclair’s one time home town, Canberra.