Pills and thrills a-plenty pepper this tale of the violent underbelly of 1950s sleazy Soho clubland, told with verve and style.
Jez Butterworth’s script caused a stir when it premiered in 1995, and the caustic and coarse dialogue still has the power to shock. Dark undertones bristle throughout, with child abuse, racism, and homophobia lurking just beneath each other syllable of the rapid-fire script.
Sam Webber and Cameron Panting storm the first scene proper, rifling through their repartee and setting the tone of bolshie masculine insecurity that marks out the employees of Ezra’s Atlantic club – every statement is both a brag and a plea for affirmation. Webber’s narcotic-supplying Sweets is naïve and trusting, and easy prey for Panting’s chancer henchman Potts.
Fellow lackey Skinny is lent a decidedly creepy air by Stan Gordon; we’re never quite sure how much he knows. The same is true of Michael Hill’s Baby – son of the club owner, and as a result dutifully suffered by the employees despite his unsettled and sometimes psychotic behaviour. Hill’s performance is full throttle and dominates the production, but can’t quite decide between Baby as a damaged, loose canon spiralling out of control, and a calculating Hamlet with an antic disposition disguising a deliberate plan.
Mickey (Lewis Garvey) appears to take control of the dangerous situation at the club, and is played with a spine of stretched steel cable: strong but liable to snap. The compact cast is rounded off by Sam Nanka-Bruce as Silver Johnny; his time on stage is brief but physically demanding.
Nick Meir’s direction keeps things tight and pacey; the only real lull is the extended interval for a complete set change. John Dixon’s design is detailed and ambitious, spilling out into the front of house to bring the audience right into the Soho club setting.
There are some issues with the play itself – most crucial action happens off stage, and certain plot devices make little sense – but the dialogue is delicious, and the energy infectious. Soften your focus and settle in for a wild ride.
Mojo continues at the Sewell Barn Theatre until November 30.