It is 18 years since Mojo made its debut at the Royal Court, and saw a 25-year old Jez Butterworth walking off clutching Olivier and Evening Standard awards and being hailed as an important new voice in British theatre. In 2013, four years after the brilliant Jerusalem cemented Butterworth’s reputation as a playwright of rare talent – one of the small band of writers who have left behind a play that will long outlive them – his early triumph has been revived for the West End.
It is tempting to try and unpick the threads that brought Butterworth from Mojo to Jerusalem, to peer into the murky past and find the path that links then to now. However watching this starry, TV-friendly revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre, one is more struck by how there is little in the play that suggests a playwright of such talent that they would eventually produce a modern tragedy on a parallel with King Lear and The Cherry Orchard.
There is no doubting the quality of writing on display in Mojo. If somewhat unadventurous in scope, it is sparky and genuinely funny. Butterworth’s writes high farce that crackles with a tension that hints at an underlying danger; the best of which often revolve around Ben Whishaw’s live-wire Baby. Baby’s recurring ‘Kiss my pegs’ motif is the play’s standout moment and in these scenes it feels that Butterworth is channelling the shifting energy that make Pinter’s early plays seem preternaturally alive.
However there is no doubting the figure that looms largest in the background of Mojo; David Mamet. There are points when it seems that Butterworth has actually set himself on a mission to create an anglicised Glengarry Glen Ross. Mojo is a play that has far more in common with Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer-prize winning play than with the emerging voices of the new wave of British playwriting in the early 1990s.
With the hugely satisfying film adaptation coming out in 1992, it is hard to believe that it wasn’t Butterworth’s mind and what we have is a very British take on the classical muscular American model; a distilled, slightly quaint version of the American dream, all a world away from from the In-Yer-Face stylings of Mark Ravenhill and the rest of young playwrights determined to send shockwaves through British theatre
The set-up seems to be a deliberate homage to Mamet’s original play, with the entire piece being set in two locations. The first half is set in a cramped office room above a club, reflecting and intensifying the underlying tension; the cast trapped and prowling like caged animals, their arguments bouncing off the walls and creating a claustrophobic atmosphere of distrust and fear. The second half replaces this with the main club; a far more expansive set that seems to disappear into the wings. It is a setting where the characters appear to expand in the new-found space, dreams are made and plans set in motion, and Butterworth’s accompanying dialogue is given room to grow and breathe.