Mojo preview: ‘a mammoth undertaking’

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Pitch Production’s first show of the year is Jez Butterworth’s Mojo, a dark comedy set in 1950s Soho, in the seedy Atlantic Club. Described by director Ambika Mod as a ‘mammoth undertaking,’ Mojo is nevertheless a richly appealing text, with a unique intensity and jarring humour that the creative team are excited to bring to life.

When asked what attracted them to this production, Mod jokes that ‘Mojo is the first show I saw that didn’t make me bored,’ but suggests that it is the connections between the play’s characters and the way they ‘appear to click onstage,’ that make it so compelling. Dynamics appear to be at the heart of this production, requiring intense amounts of preparation – or in the case of Tristan Robinson and Luke Maskell (as Potts and Sweets respectively) cast bonding involved getting ‘absolutely wrecked,’ a long DMC, and an evening spent in Fabios.

Bróccán Tyzack-Carlin, who plays Skinny, also comments that it is less ‘about what’s happening,’ in the play than it is about ‘how the individual characters are responding and reacting to one another.’ The play abounds with ‘quick fire energy’ as characters react to one another, reeling off Butterworth’s sharp dialogue. With lines that can ‘veer off in a tangent’ at any given point, it is easy to see why the play has taken its toll on the actors, who acknowledge feeling the pressure, even as they enthusiastically get into character. Luke Maskell advises that ‘you can’t switch off and saunter through it, you have to take it running,’ a sentiment which can aptly be applied to the experience of watching the play itself. The cast are well aware that the energy of Mojo may also be a source of confusion, as Maskell comments that ‘there’s a possibility that the audience might not understand exactly what’s going on the whole time.’ Wary of this, they are keen to ensure that the entertainment factor of the play makes up for any confusion, or the lack of any clear moral message (of which I am assured there is none).

When asked about the staging of her production, Mod quips that ‘all is to be revealed,’ but goes on to say that she didn’t want to be ‘too inventive’ with the technical side of the play. The set will be ‘as simple as possible,’ with a hefty amount of attention to detail in the use of props. Mod stresses that ‘as long as it’s us and the outside world is shut off,’ the play could happen anywhere. Sophie Forster adds that with the amount happening onstage, with ‘all hell breaking loose at all times,’ the audience will be forced to play little attention to what’s going on around the actors. Creatively, the emphasis appears to be on ‘characterisation’ rather than the externalities of stage and set, leaving the actors with a hefty weight of responsibility. The ‘dynamic, explosive environment’ (Robinson) of the seedy Atlantic club will be rendered through the actions of the cast, and the way in which they choose to recreate Butterworth’s dialogue.

Additionally, Ambika Mod has made some notable changes, particularly in diverging from the conventional all-male cast. Perhaps it is unusual that a play Mod describes as ‘full of testosterone,’ is being performed with gender-blind casting, but I am assured that this was integral to the production’s evolution. Sophie Forster plays Mickey, the oldest character in the play, and a role which Mod argues lent itself to being played by a woman due to the ‘natural maturity’ that female students tend to have over their male peers. The creative team argue that such a change has impacted upon the play’s dynamics, and the way relationships will play out onstage, particularly influencing the dynamic between Mickey and Baby, played by Sam Penn.

Fortunately for the cast, the sole problem facing their production seems to be laughter, as they appear incapable of keeping a straight face through some of Butterworth’s more ‘bizarre’ lines. Watching part of their rehearsal, I find that it is the most obscure and surreal phrases that cause the cast to break down into giggles – ‘Stick a pin in me’ being a notable one. Tyzack-Carlin suggests that this is really a kind of ‘stress-relief’ for the cast, where the frustration of tackling even the least funny scenes can cause them to break into laughter, possibly emphasising the weight of their theatrical task.

Undeniably, even in their hysterics, the cast and creative team of Mojo are excited to take on every challenge it presents, from bizarre jokes to some unquestionably twisted 1950s gangsters. The complexities of Butterworth’s play make it an ambitious endeavour, but its team are more than worthy. If the audience can keep up, Mojo promises to provide a wealth of opportunities for entertainment, or at least an evening of absorbing and explosive drama.

Photograph: Samuel Kirkman

‘Mojo’ will be performed at The Assembly Rooms Theatre from the 27th to the 29th of October at 19:30. Book your tickets here

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