Theatre Review: Mojo, Harold Pinter theatre

The star-studded Mojo cast

The star-studded Mojo cast

London’s theatre scene is so jam packed with certified stars at the moment that the lights of Hollywood must be a little dimmed.

Mojo, the Jez ‘Jerusalem’ Butterworth penned play, written 13 years before his smash hit, manages to squeeze not one, but three big egos names onto the stage at the Harold Pinter theatre.

With Q, Ron Weasley and Mr Bates on one stage, Mojo sounds like some super tribute to screen Britain. In reality it’s more like an all too real 2am Saturday night Britain after the country has collectively downed one too many Sambucas. It’s fidgety, brittle, twitchy, testosterone-fuelled and, often, incoherent.

Mojo is set in a seedy club in 1950s Soho, back in its pre-Hummus Bros days when gangsters and sex shops dominated the narrow streets east of Regents Street. There’s been a murder off stage; Ezra, the club’s owner has been found in two bins by the manager Mickey (a weary Brendan Coyle) one July morning, his body parts thought to be put there by Sam Ross, a rival in the rock’n’roll wars. Ezra’s son, Baby, sheds few tears for his father, but his steely composure at the news of his dad’s death belies an anger and thirst for revenge. Caught in the middle of these warring rivals – and Baby’s dormant wroth – is Silver Johnny (Tom Rhys Harries) a burgeoning rock‘n’roll star set for Stateside success according to the club’s ‘suits’, Sweets (Rupert Grint) and Potts (Daniel Mays).

A play about 1950s cockney gangsters is never going to be warm and cosy, but Mojo, while smart and witty and largely well-acted, lacks a heart. It’s like watching a drama workshop where the actors are improvising and failing to connect with each other. The characters shout, stomp and swear with little impact.  There are some very funny lines, although many of these get lost in the turmoil, but there is little to love.

Daniel Mays is a fantastic actor who often eclipses  the bigger stars he shares a screen – or in this case – a stage with. Mays and the brilliant Ben Whishaw as the cool, cruel Baby give the play depth and focus; their shoulders must be hurting from holding it up.

Brendan Coyle looks like he’d rather be polishing Lord Grantham’s shoes or pushing rapists off pavements – anywhere, anywhere – than on the stage at the Harold Pinter theatre playing a ropey nightclub manager who may have had a hand in murdering his boss. He was so over the whole thing that he even abandoned his cockney accent in the second half.

Rupert, has taken the well trodden path of shaking off his child star past by treading the boards in a part where he gets to say ‘fuck’ a lot. He’s rather good, although despite dropping the f-bomb frequently, there’s more than a hint of his Harry Potter nemesis about his slacker Sweets role.

Funny and frantic, for all its star billing and big writer and director combo (Ian Rickson once again joins Butterworth), Mojo didn’t catch my imagination, it was perhaps too stylised, too self-consciously theatrical to pull you into its seedy underworld.

by Suzanne Elliott

Mojo runs until 8 February 2014 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street W1. For more information and tickets, visit www.mojotheplay.com.

Theatre review: Chimerica, Harold Pinter Theatre

Tank Man of Tiananmen Square by Jeff Widener

Tank Man of Tiananmen Square by Jeff Widener

Thousands of miles away from its epicentre, in a sitting room in Surrey, the events of Tiananmen Square would, if not change my life, certainly set me off on a path I’m still ambling along haphazardly today. It was while watching Kate Adie standing amongst protesters and rumbling tanks calming relaying the tumultuous events into people’s living rooms across the UK that inspired me to become a journalist, or, more specifically, a war correspondent.

Fourteen years later my journalism career has been far less dramatic and impressive than Adie’s bullet-strewn route, these days the most dangerous thing I have to navigate are the rails of expensive clothes as I carry my soup on my way from the office kitchen to my desk.

The events of June 1989 obviously changed far more than the career path of a 12 year-old girl in the Home Counties. It changed families’ lives overnight as hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful protesters were shot dead by the People’s Army. It changed China’s future, as it shrugged off its economic isolation and began its journey to world domination, biting at the heels of the mighty USA in a bid to succeed it as the world’s next superpower.

This tug-of-war between East and West forms the backbone of Chimerica (it took me ages to get the title, duh), examining both personal and political relationships as the actions shifts, and sometimes overlaps, between Beijing and New York, swinging between 1989 and the present day.

The play opens on 3 June 1989 when ambitious young American photographer Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) is gifted a bird’s eye view of the moment Wang Weilin – widely believed to be his name – stepped in front of a tank as it trundled into Tiananmen Square to break up what had been a peaceful seven week protest. Joe made his name from the photograph (much like the real photographer Jeff Widener did), and flies back fourteen years later on another assignment to China where he is reunited with his old friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong). On the flight he meets Tess (Claudie Blakley), a funny, straight talking British woman who works in analysing the Chinese consumer for Western businesses desperate for a share of the spending power of 1.2 billion Chinese.

Later, Joe and Zhang are drinking beer in the Chinese man’s tiny Beijing apartment. The two men rake over the still simmering coals of that day that changed both their lives for ever (Zhang’s wife was amongst the dead) and Zhang drops a bombshell – Tank Man wasn’t whisked off and shot as presumed, but is still alive. Joe, hungry for a story and with a genuine, if misguided, desire to find the truth, sets out to discover Tank Man’s whereabouts and in the process sparks the smouldering fire that will eventually rage out of his control and have far reaching consequences from Beijing to Queens.

Chimerica has been a huge hit, its success propelling it from the Almeida Theatre to the West End where, after a sell-out season, is due to end its run in a couple of weeks. The success of Lucy Kirkwood’s play isn’t surprising, it’s a brilliant piece of theatre that combines so much of what makes theatre great with a real contemporary, almost filmic, quality that elevates it beyond just another West End smash. For all its big themes and comments on government corruption and big business cover-ups Chimerica is funny – proper belly laugh funny too, not polite theatre-chuckling – heart-warming, heart-breaking, intelligent and genuine. The characters talk like real people; no one has one of those wine-glass throwing, finger pointing hysterical ephemeral arguments where no one can remember what the point was. The plot is riveting, proper edge-of-the-seat stuff, and complex in a way you rarely get on stage and it canters along without ever feeling rushed. I liked that Tess was recognisably English, not because she liked scones and tea, but because she said things like ‘I skipped down the road like some cunt in a musical’, quoted Spinal Tap and drank whiskey because she liked it not because she had A Drink Problem. Joe was a photojournalist who lived for the story, destroying everything in his path in search for the truth, but who wasn’t a villain, just a flawed man whose ambition was bigger than him. As we come to understand during Chimerica, heroes don’t always act heroically.

As in life there is no neat ending. The final scenes were hugely moving without being mawkish and Tess’s swelling belly gave us a tiny glimmer of hope for the future, even if this future is in a world where governments can control the weather and where the truth will always lose out to money and power.

by Suzanne Elliott