Butterworth retains his Mojo (after nearly 20 years)

Mojo – Harold Pinter Theatre, booking until 25 January 2014

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 Mojo - Full Cast, Daniel Mays, Rupert Grint, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Coyle, Colin Morgan, Tom Rhyss HarrisPinter 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.

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Luton: Immortalised

The Same Deep Water As Me – Donmar Warehouse, until 28 September 2013

Set in Luton, featuring personal injury lawyers and conventionally played, Nick Payne’s The Same Deep Water As Me at first glance appears to have an underwhelming premise to follow his sparkly original and hugely successful Constellations. However Nick Payne, despite young in years, has already begun to establish a formidable reputation as a playwright with an ear for the patter of the everyday voices and so it proves with a solid follow-up to one of the more original plays of recent years.

Mark Wooten

Payne’s talent goes farther than the mimicking of the everyday, it is also possible to see him channelling the distinctive voices of the late 20th century. There was a Stoppardian verve to the writing that grounded Constellations and it  is impossible to watch The Same Deep Water As Me and not recognise the muscularity of Mamet lying below the surface.

It is rare, in British playwriting, to find someone who can so convincingly evoke the language of those that may be labelled the working middle-classes. His characters seem to spring from a previously untapped well of working professionals; strong working-class roots but perhaps the first to make use of widening university provision.

By and large Payne writes characters who are near-invisible on the stage, and who are often routinely talked-down and patronised by those who see themselves as the guardians of culture. They do not have a socialist chip on their shoulders but they also are not part of the institutional elites; in short they are not political but are fiercely individual and rarely do playwrights try to illuminate the inner-lives and desires.

At times Payne’s writing is reminiscent of a well-crafted stand-up routine; turning ordinary lives into something faintly surreal and highlighting the hidden absurdity’s in established routines. Rather than grotesque caricatures, Payne finds humanity in the everyday.  A repeat call-back to Greggs – a very modern class touchstone – under Payne’s gentle probing reveals glimpses of a hidden world where relationships develop and life experience is shared. We find the quality of a steak slice is quantified and rated with the same precision that foodies reserve for bread and olives.

The shadow of Mamet is impossible to ignore and these is reinforced through both plot and structure. The ambulance-chasing, insurance scams of In The Same Deep Water As Me operates in a similar moral universal to Glengarry Glen Ross.  They both operate within a macho-office-based culture; they are full of people who are not operating at the margins but are still having to scrap and scramble to survive.

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