Mojo (def): charm or spell cast, sex appeal.
STC’s ‘Mojo’ has little evidence of any of it.
To be fair, I saw it in previews and Sam Haft had pulled out of the play only five days before, in the first night of the technical run and Lindsay Farris had stepped in to play the role of Baby. So I strongly suspect it had some realigning to do, as well as normal preview bumps in rhythm.
But when I saw it, ’Mojo’ was devoid of much of its tension. ‘Mojo’ is set around the late 50’s in seedy London, teddy boys, tough talk, rock and roll and an underworld of gangsters caught up with a hope of youthful advancement any way you can get it. It is distinctly masculine and violent. ‘Mojo’ has all the ingredients for tension but the cake is yet to cook. Director Iain Sinclair has certainly pumped Jez Butterworth’s play full of energy and each actor seemed to be giving it all they had (and there’s no denying there’s some fine acting happening on stage- Josh McConville as Potts and Eamon Farren as Skinny in particular) but much like STC’s ‘Edward Gant’ from a couple of years back, it’s not coming together to transfer it into tangible engagement for the audience.
So I was left asking, why was there no tension? What is it about this production of Butterworth’s ‘Mojo’ that left me thinking ‘No Go’? Butterworth’s play is a precision in delivery of language, often compared with the rising tension of dialogue from writers like Pinter, who was undeniably an influence on the writer. Has the timing in Sinclair’s show been miscalculated? It fires the opening dialogue like a bull out of the gate and so there is a bit of catch up happening in the audience, post Silver Johnny’s assaulting rock performance and that pace rarely changes. Pip Runciman’s set design and David Fleischer’s costumes leave me no doubt that this is era specific and this dingy back club room holds a promise of ambition and deals are in motion. So I’m certainly aware of context and its driving narrative and floating ideas. I’m just not invested in it.
I think part of the issue of the play is its toughest character, Tony Martin (Mickey) is not intimidating enough and fails to seduce the other characters effectively. I don’t feel threatened by the unfolding events and thus I don’t believe the power he has over the other characters to decide their fate. I’m not convinced by whatever relationship he has with Skinny (Farren) that mirrors the departed Ezra and his son Baby (Farris) and so the ending feels problematic and I’m unaffected by Mickey’s response to Skinny’s dilemma. I don’t feel threatened by the possibility of Sam Ross taking over the club scene and nor do I believe the fear expressed by the others on stage for the possibility of their fate.
If this play is a black comedy, it hasn’t hit its mark because the tilt has gone off course. Perhaps part of the issue is that a play set in the London underground night club scene of the late 50’s feels dated in this production, which is striving for authenticity to its middle-class Australian audience (or maybe just me). I couldn’t connect with it culturally, socially or historically and therefore it felt irrelevant. It didn’t resonate with me and Sinclair’s production didn’t emerge from its original setting and speak to an audience of today.
In the end, I’m left with a play that has heart in its performances but no soul. I see people working for their money but not working for mine.
I hope it finds its feet and rhythm with this last minute ensemble change and I wish Haft a speedy recovery but ‘Mojo’ didn’t earn its ticket price when I saw it.