You can't have Mojo and your money back

Jez Butterworth's play — with Cockney characters called Baby, Potts, Skinny — is a pastiche of a pastiche. But there's a marvellously moody cow in Tom Wells's Jack and the Beanstalk

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM


Harold Pinter, until 8 February

Jack and the Beanstalk

Lyric Hammersmith, until 4 January

In 1992 Quentin Tarentino gave us Reservoir Dogs. At a stroke he reinvented the gangster genre and turned it into a comedy of manners with a deadly undertow. This new mutation looked as if it might be easy to copy. Many tried. Among them was Jez Butterworth, whose 1995 play Mojo takes Tarantino’s zany-macabre format and moves it to Soho in the 1950s. Butterworth also leans heavily on Pinter.

The play opens in the back-office of a nightclub. Two pilled-up criminals are exchanging streams of lairy London chit-chat. Their boss, Ezra, has discovered a teenage heart-throb named Silver Johnny but rival gangsters are keen to muscle in and grab a piece of the star’s income. The details are hard to follow because the jabbering thugs leap so fast from one topic to the next. And the characters they’re discussing are off-stage. Two or three more villains barge in and out, swearing and swinging their fists. A few chairs get chucked. Someone swishes a sword around. These aggressive, dim-witted characters are not easy to sympathise with.

After an hour of prattle, a shock is announced. Ezra is dead. His unknown killer has taken the trouble to carve him in two. Are the police on their way to investigate? Apparently not. The halved corpse has been dumped behind the club. Next it gets dragged on stage in a pair of ash cans. Don’t ask why. Just give yourself a pat on the back for spotting the nod to Samuel Beckett, whose impenetrable fantasy Endgame features two cadaverous old folk trapped in dustbins. Very clever. In the second act, the plot thickens without becoming credible or gripping. Ezra’s son wants to seize control of the nightclub. Silver Johnny is suspended by his legs and tortured, rather ineffectively. Someone gets shot in the head. ‘It’s only a little hole,’ says someone else.

The production, directed by Ian Rickson, has been billed as a massive West End hit. Stars from Downton and Hogwarts have been drafted in to boost the box office. But the script doesn’t bear scrutiny. It’s a pastiche of a pastiche. The characters speak fluent London cabbie. Their names have been chosen from the chirpy Cockney thesaurus of loveable eccentricity: Baby, Potts, Skinny, Mickey and Sweets. The flashy, jerky acting is overdone and underfelt. If this lot were auditioning for Carry On Ronnie and Reggie they’d be hired immediately. The central role is played by Ben Whishaw, who has an interesting face and a compelling air of wounded saintliness. But these qualities are far better suited to celluloid. On stage, his small skull makes his meagre frame look skinny and undernourished. He’s a Wimbledon ballboy, not an East End killer. To suggest menace, he lowers his voice and drops his energy levels. This almost works. But at times he looks like Action Man with a flat battery.

I watched the show from the royal circle, where it was received in respectful silence. Below us, in the stalls, we could hear the distant rumble of 50-quid-a-ticket laughter. The bonhomie didn’t trickle upwards. In the interval I heard one customer joke, ‘I want my money back.’ On a technical level, the play is fascinating because it shows Butterworth’s stagecraft in its larval phase. He learned a great deal from this callous, clumsy little thriller. Plot, for example, he can’t handle. So he dispensed with it altogether in his masterpiece Jerusalem, where the slender storyline leaves room for a glorious parade of barmy, romantic English deadbeats. He also added humour, lyricism and female characters. This heartless all-male caper is a laborious night out.

The panto season arrives at the Lyric Hammersmith with Jack and the Beanstalk. Comic playwright Tom Wells pitches his script well above kiddie level. Good thing, too. Kids don’t buy their tickets, for a start. And they’ll swallow just about anything. The show is crammed with sly innuendo, which flies straight over the youngsters’ heads. For some reason it’s twice as much fun laughing at something in the presence of children that children don’t understand.

The show is slickly produced and thoroughly rehearsed (not always the case with pantos). Rochelle Rose has a winning presence as the principal boy. Steven Webb, a veteran of fringe musicals, dominates the venue with tremendous style. Having only ever seen him in song-and-dance shows, I had no idea he was such a charismatic comedian. Perhaps his sweet and powerful singing voice has been holding him back. Howard Ward is an adorable dame, whose female presence has none of the usual camp distortions. And the cow is sensational. To make a cow ponderous and risible is easy. But this poor thing is melancholy, too. It’s the saddest animal I’ve seen since War Horse.

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