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.

<<Continue to full review>>

Merrily we roll out of the theatre

Merrily We Roll Along – Harold Pinter Theatrebooking until 27 July 2013

Among otherwise level-headed people musical theatre remains a peculiarly divisive form of popular culture. There are many of who would happily sit through two and a half hours of magic-soaked love stories in the forests Merrily We Roll Along - Harold Pinter Theatreoutside of Thebes, or will extol the merits of a Turner-prize winner whose contribution to the artistic world is to create soundscapes under Glaswegian bridges.

However present them with a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written musicals as diverse as an examination of the life of pointillist painter, George Seurat; or the gore-spattered grand guignol of the demon barber of Fleet Street; or even an unpicking of the psychological darkness at the heart of the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales, and they will raise their eyebrows and silently mouth the words ‘jazz hands’.

Watching productions like Merrily We Roll Along act as a constant reminder why such narrow-minded viewpoints need to be challenged. Certainly the landscape of musical theatre has changed markedly since Stephen Sondheim made his career by writing the lyrics for Bernstein’s West Side Story. The rise of Andrew Lloyd-Webber that introduced pop-sensibilities and extravagant staging to Broadway couldn’t be further away from the nuanced lyrics and subtle melodies that encapsulate the magic of Sondheim.

The divide only got greater in the last two decades, as the rise of the mega-musical from Mamma Mia! to We Will Rock You saw a new way for theatre producers to cash-in; tapping into the recognition factor of proper bands set against a licence to perform them in a sub-par way with a witless plot under the banner of ‘musical theatre’ – surely as lowest common denominator entertainment goes these productions are right up there with ‘X-Factor’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.

Merrily We Roll Along Trio

The Menier Chocolate Factory must be applauded for setting itself against the tide and producing a string of Sondheim revivals that remind us that there are people out there who see no distinction in artistic merit between a ‘play’ and a ‘musical’. In bringing us A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and now Merrily We Roll Along – transferred to the West End – the Menier has proved time and again that there is a space for intelligent, difficult musicals that can be both commercial and critical hits.

Merrily We Roll Along, a notorious flop when it opened, has taken two decades to gain similar levels of acclaim to what are seen as Sondheim’s masterpieces. However the intervening years have only served to increase its relevance to the audience. Charlie’s bitterness at Franklyn’s desire to follow the money and to leave ‘proper’ writing behind him only seems more familiar to a theatre-scene where, despite writing the lyrics for the commercial smash-hit of Matilda, Tim Minchin finds it difficult to raise any funding for a musical that isn’t based on an existing concept.

<<Continue to full review>>