views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

White Bear Theatre
14th September 2014


Luke Trebilcock as Baby

Photography provided by The White Bear Theatre

The last play I saw Sebastien Blanc direct was Boy's Life and, despite all the gang warfare and rock 'n' roll of Mojo, boil it down and it is still another show about a bunch of lads who don't really know what they're doing. Oh, there's plenty of violence in this one, with crude, vulgar and visceral language from playwright Jez Butterworth, but peel back this layer of brutality and the characters presented to us are damaged and vulnerable.

Mojo opens with new singing sensation Silver Johnny (Oliver Hall) preening and posing. Initially we think he may be the focus of the story, but he's a mere pawn in a complicated gangland game. In a Beckett-like move, two of the main players - club boss Ezra and his rival Ross - are never actually seen. Well, not alive anyway. The characters we do see are intimidated and fearful enough to establish Ezra and Ross as highly dangerous. There may be serious stuff afoot, but that doesn't stop the all-male cast from bringing plenty of humour and childishness.

The entire production is set in a 1950s Soho club, which is managed by Mickey (Oscar Blend) and staffed by Skinny (Max Warrick), Potts (Max Saunders Singer) and Sweets (Jack Heath). Baby (Luke Trebilcock) also hangs around, but seems to get away without doing much by virtue of being Ezra's son. The boys frequently squabble amongst themselves - Skinny wants to be like Baby, copying his style; Potts and Sweets are bessie mates, sticking up for each other against the world; Baby is the class bully who talks with his fists.

He's also the most intriguing character. There is no attempt to subtly introduce Baby's back story: early on we're told that his dad abused him. It's very to the point, but this is a play about mobsters, no one pulls any punches. Trebilcock has a deliciously dark edge: even when he's not doing anything, his character's presence is keenly felt. His eyes have a mad quality to them which suggests if you do anything to upset Baby - and there aren't any rules to indicate what that that anything could be - he'll destroy you.

Max Warrick, Max Saunders Singer, Jack Heath and Oscar Blend as Skinny, Potts, Sweets and Mickey

Photography provided by The White Bear Theatre

The recent West End revival of Mojo starred Ben Whishaw as Baby - personally, I just can't see it. There may have been a few highly successful productions that went before, but the part of Baby seems written for Trebilcock, he really owns it. The other actors do a sterling job in supporting him, in particularly the jumpiness of pill-popping Potts and Sweets, a nice but dim double act by Singer and Heath, but it's Trebilcock's performance which makes this Mojo so enthralling.

There's no such thing as an empty threat with Baby, but equally there's no telling what's going to set him off, which makes him wholly unpredictable. When he apologises to the other boys by buying them toffee apples, there's something heartbreaking about his naiveté - he's grown up with violence, but underneath it all, there's a little boy. What adult buys sweets as a sorry gift? We can't condone Baby's actions, he's clearly deranged, but we do desperately feel for him. He's a complex character and Blanc truly gets this across.

Indeed, you may think the cut and thrust of gangland crime would be the focal point, but that actually plays second fiddle to a study of our lead. Butterworth's defiantly disgusting script calls for it to be bubbling in the background which Blanc duly acknowledges. Still, there's enough twists and turns to keep us on tenterhooks and our director keeps the action flowing very naturally.

The set is gloriously detailed, from the vandalised portraits of British prime ministers (c'mon, who wouldn't be tempted to draw horns on them?) to the film posters, darts board and fully stocked bar. For me, you know the set designer's really gone to town with the design when you can't tell what venue you're in. I know The White Bear well, but Jo Dias has transformed it into something I don't recognise as a Kennington theatre pub.

While Mojo's overtly masculine (probably no surprise given the cast and subject matter) there are a few tender moments too, making for a thoroughly magnetic piece. This is one Baby you don't put in a corner.

Mojo ran from 2nd to 21st September 2014 at the White Bear Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Kennington (Northern)

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