The shadow of Harold Pinter looms large in Jez Butterworth's dazzling debut play Mojo originally premiered in 1995, so it's only appropriate that not only did Pinter himself appear in the 1997 film version, but also that it now returns to the West End theatre named after Pinter. (And on the first night, Pinter's widow Lady Antonia Fraser was in the audience, too).
Set in 1958 -- the year that Pinter's The Birthday Party coincidentally made its first controversial appearance in London -- a very different kind of disturbing party is being played out here. In this blistering behind-the-scenes portrait of a battle for power and possession in a seedy Soho nightclub Ezra's Atlantic, a new star has been discovered in Silver Johnny.
But then Silver Johnny is kidnapped and the unseen Ezra is murdered, his body returned to the club in two dustbins. That violence takes place offstage, but more is played out right in front of us. If the play won a 1996 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, it is frequently of the pitch-black sort. The play is at once heady and harrowing, revelling in language, mood and menace.
Where the original production premiered in 1995 at the Royal Court, it was all about the play; now, it is about all-star casting, with a line-up that includes Ben Whishaw (Q in Bond's Skyfall and other films that include Brideshead Revisited and Perfume), Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey), Colin Morgan (Merlin) and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter film series), plus stage and screen regular Daniel Mays and more recent graduate Tom Rhys Harries. But in fact all but Grint, who is making his professional theatre debut but absolutely deserves to be in their company, have substantial stage experience, so the play isn't compromised.
Far from it. Under the rigorous direction of Ian Rickson, returning to direct the play that he staged the original production of and has since directed the premieres of every single one of Butterworth's subsequent plays, they tease out every nuance and surprise in this constantly churning comic drama.
There isn't a false note amongst them, and if Ben Whishaw -- as Ezra's strangely distant and disconnected surviving son, and Brendan Coyle as Mickey who seeks to position himself as heir apparent to Ezra -- command the centrestage, there are equally vivid contributions from Mays, Morgan and Grint as their variously jittery sidekicks.
The play is a bold but brilliant choice for the West End. It's not easy and frequently queasy, but utterly gripping.
"It is the combination of strong plotting and zinging dialogue that makes this play so addictive and disconcerting."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Sadly, the play is an unlovely, violent, foul-mouthed effort."
Quentin Letts for Daily Mail
"You won't find much better ensemble acting than this, nor a play that so effectively punctures the pretensions of a hermetic gangland culture."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Brilliant performances illuminate Ian Rickson's revival of Jez Butterworth's first play...The comedy is at times wickedly black, and the second half is sharper than the first. But it takes too long to hit its stride - and never really throbs with menace."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard