Oftentimes as a critic I will overlook certain parts of a production, mainly because I tend to see the play – or rather the 'theatrical experience' – as a whole. It's only when such an experience goes awry that one tends to begin assigning blame – an actor was off, a sound designer didn't know his cannon blasts from radio static, a lighting designer went all avant-garde and blinded the audience, and so on, and so on. But on reflection on this quite lovely foray into English violence that is Jez Butterworth's "Mojo" – if such a foray could be called lovely – I find myself marvelling at the set designer over and over again.
Potts (Josh McConville), Baby (Lindsay Farris), and Sweets (Ben O'Toole). Photo by Brett Boardman.
Her name is Pip Runciman, and what she did with the Wharf 1 Theatre space at the Sydney Theatre Company was, while not particularly flashy, nevertheless excellent. Because, dear reader, the Wharf 1 Theatre surely can't be the easiest theatre to design for. The seats wrap around the stage less than 180 degrees, leaving a section of the audience on the left sometimes having to turn to see some action going on to their direct left. The ceiling – at least my memory of it – isn't that high (and indeed, the seats themselves are raked quite severely). The back wall is very evident, too, and very impassable. And yet Runciman has performed a minor miracle by allowing the actors a huge amount of space to breathe in, yet still having not only a full revolve offset out of the way, but also a circular staircase and a second level. Suddenly, you see, there is height to the set where there has rarely been height in a Wharf 1 play that I can remember. Suddenly the revolve is not centre stage with all the cliches that that tends to entail. It's both spacious and claustrophobic and that same time, and suits the play to a tee. Impressed, was I. And now to move on.
"Mojo", as the synopsis tells us (because the synopsis does it far so better than anything I could distill), is a "journey through the seedy, amphetamine-fuelled London rock scene of the 1950s, [following] a gang of would-be power-players who, seduced by the promise of fame and fortune, battle for control of hot teen singing idol, Silver Johnny". Silver Johnny (Jeremy Davidson) begins the show with a rather full on serenade of the audience (both imagined and real) on his prowess at being a "sixty minute man", complete with guitarist and drummer also on stage. The percussionist, Alon Ilsar, provides a running commentary on the play via many a bang and swish on his drum kit; and he does a far better job of incidental music than a comparable effort in Bell Shakespeare's ill-fated production of King Lear a few years ago. Percussion done right, it was. The action he commentates involves a cast that includes Mickey (Tony Martin), the effective head of the gang, as well as Potts and Sweets (Josh McConville and Ben O'Toole), two of the lower orders who are always scheming. There's also Skinny (Eamon Farren), a simpering chihuahua of a man that is always looking to position himself the best he can, but lacking the brute force necessary to often do it (hence the name), and finally Baby, the most ignorant member of it all, but with a inner force that must be reckoned with. (Lindsay Farris plays Baby, replacing – late into rehearsals – Sam Haft who had to leave the production.)
Mickey (Tony Martin) and Skinny (Eamon Farren). Photo by Brett Boardman.
Much happens. Most of the time it is foul-mouthed, with some fine insults being hurled that amuse the audience. Often it is funny apart from that, and sometimes it is also dire and brutal. Most importantly, though, it simmers throughout, with a steam-slipping-from-the-kettle violence that is a masterclass in keeping the audience's attention. Director Iain Sinclair, most notable in this critic's eyes for his brilliant production of "Our Town" a few years ago for the STC (although his production of Blood Wedding, much anticipated after his Our Town success, left a bit to be desired), has here crafted a taut two and half hour show, oxymoron as that may be. I felt, perhaps, that the play – at least on the night I saw it – was meant to be funnier than we the audience took it for, but the underlying tensions created filled any cracks that may have opened from a joke not getting quite where it should.
Others haven't liked it as much as I have, but I thought it was great. Well worth the evening. If you're looking for a bit of a thrill and a laugh, then this here is what you're looking for.