by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Ian Rickson
Harold Pinter Theatre, London
Saturday 11th January 2014, matinee
With Brendan Coyle, Rupert Grint, Tom Rhys Harries, Daniel Mays, Colin Morgan, Ben Whishaw
This is a revival of Jez Butterworth’s 1995 play, with Ian Rickson directing again … so we have the same team that produced Jerusalem (REVIEW LINKED) and a stellar cast to match. The play is set a few hundred yards from the Harold Pinter Theatre: in Soho, in July 1958 gangland.
The play takes place in a club, act one upstairs, act two downstairs on the club floor. We open with a fledgling pop star, Johnny Silver, practising his dance moves before descending the spiral stairs to the club as screams from the audience envelop us and it goes black. This is a stunning dance routine, and Act One is bookended neatly, by an even more stunning, but also savage and bizarre, dance routine from Baby (Ben Whishaw at the end).
L t R: Potts (Daniel Mays) and Sweets (Rupert Grint)
We’re then with two employees, Potts (Daniel Mays) and Sweets (Rupert Grint) chatting away at a table. It’s set with delicate china tea pot and cups and two open bottles of beer. Low key? No, the freewheeling, spiralling dialogue is brilliant. They’re both hyped up on amphetamines, and Daniel Mays trembles shakes and shivers his way through the whole play in a tour de force as Potts (well, that’s what he is in the programme, though everyone calls him Sid or Sidney). Rupert Grint is apparently in his first professional stage role, though he is so well-known from Harry Potter (and a film I love, Wild Target). You would never guess it. These two are the double act, the brokers men, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We never see the principal topics of their conversation, club owner Ezra, and another gangland impresario, Charlie Ross. These two guys are watching the door to an inner room while negotiations take place on the future of the pop star discovery, Johnny Silver. 1958. Good looking boys like Johnny Silver with hastily-supplied silly names are meat. Commodities.
The third employee, Skinny (Colin Morgan) is voluble, but as thick as a brick. Morgan holds the facial expressions perfectly.
L to R: Sweets, Baby, Potts, Mickey
As well as holding the two gangland bosses unseen, at a distance, the play also holds back Baby, the psychopathic son of the boss, Ezra, from the early action. Baby is played by Ben Wishaw. People have been telling me for years what an incredible actor he is, and I’ve agreed on screen, but have to say no one could have impressed in a play as lame as Peter & Alice which we saw him in last year. But I’m converted. This was one of the most charismatic, chilling, commanding performances I have seen. Baby was abused by his father, and is a sadistic and violent man. His speech pattern is weird, detached, deliberate, perhaps autistic. The next scene of Act One (technically scene three) opens with a tightly choreographed scene of mayhem with Baby wielding a cutlass and cutting a table in two. Skinny is tied to the juke box, trousers round his ankles, the victim. There is a story we hear from Baby about going off in a van with his dad and a chainsaw and meat cleavers which has a lot about his character and his dad in there.
Brendan Coyle is the one older character, Ezra’s lieutenant, Mickey. Older, smoother but menacing, a figure of authority. Next time I see Downton Abbey I’ll be certain that Bates was guilty too. He has to contrast to the rest of the cast, all younger.
Well, then their boss, Ezra is discovered cut in two and stuffed in two dustbins. Johnny Silver has gone missing. they’re all sure they’re going to be the next victims of Charlie Ross, and barricade themselves inside the club.
L to R: Baby, Sweets, Skinny, Potts, Mickey
I won’t walk through Act Two, though we’re late in the play’s run to be worrying about plot spoilers. There is a stand-out scene where Baby (who is untouched by Ezra’s demise) has Johnny Silver strung up by his ankles. There’s a similar scene in The Lieutenant of Inishmoor and I had to look up the dates … Mojo is six years earlier, so I withdraw my thoughts of imitation!
The world is all-male, closeted (in more than one sense), violent, abusive. The banter is unremittingly racist, sexist and homophobic. Just like 1958, in fact. It struck me that there are constant cross-accusations of homosexual behaviour but the relationship between Mickey and Skinny looks homosexual, and we’re not sure whether Baby leads Johnny Silver off at the end because he fancies him, or because he’s won the piece of meat to exploit in the pop world. Probably both. I’m using ‘homosexual’ not ‘gay’ as I normally would, because there’s nothing remotely cheerful about it here! The Kray Brothers from that era were apparently attending homosexual parties, while taking huge and violent exception to being called poufs. The Monty Python sketch comes to mind when they have a gangster calmly “in the conversation pit, nailing someone’s head to a coffee table.”
I remember working in a warehouse when I was sixteen in summer holidays, and the constant abuse of Skinny (because he’s thick) was echoed in the treatment of the hapless bike delivery boy by the only slightly brighter co-workers. But they had nowhere near the sadism of Baby, who is a towering creation, not quite Rooster perhaps, but nevertheless brilliantly written and brilliantly performed.
Baby (Ben Wishaw)
On direction, my companion is always critical of blocking and stage movement, and she came out of this one saying it was perfect from start to finish. The dance scenes, the fight scene, and general movement were first-rate. Whishaw proved to be a brilliant mover, and also an exceptional singer, giving parts of Be Bop A Lu La, Sixty Minute Man and Yaketty Yak, unaccompanied, but powerfully.
It isn’t as great a play as Jerusalem, but then every playwright has their Hamlet then the rest. It’s still an excellent play, well revived with the ensemble playing by five very well-known actors at the highest level.
The play is fittingly at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Pinter himself had a role in the 1997 film version of the play.
Look above. The programme can have a long column on “Music” (there is original instrumental music) and sound. They can credit a “hanging consultant” and “hanging rigging supplier” and each of the musicians who played on the instrumental recordings. They can credit the jukebox supplier, and the photographer who did the large posters in the balcony (which we could only glimpse). But they use three songs to great effect, and do not credit them. This is standard theatre practice. It really annoys me, so:
Be Bop A Lu La (Gene Vincent, we’ll ignore his manager who took half the credit) Originally recorded by Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps
Sixty-Minute Man (Billy Ward, Rose Marks) Originally recorded by Billy Ward & The Dominoes
Yaketty Yak (Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller) Originally recorded by The Coasters
See? It isn’t hard. And many in the audience might actually have wanted to know that.
I picked up a few and the play states that it is July 1958. No one thought of themself as “Spider Man” in 1958 as the character was created in 1962, and I got that the instant it was said. They could have used Batman or Captain America. I’ve added this comment to the Sloppy Fiction article here.
The guitar soundtrack is definitely 70s in sound, not 50s.
The swearing is brilliantly written, and accurate 99.9% of the time. “motherfucker” appears just once. Though used in American English, it was not regularly used in Britain in 1958. OK, I don’t know gangland culture, in 1958, but it is usually held to be a mid to late 60s import.
A lot, but not gratuitous in the concept. They reverted to the herbal smoking mixture of a few years ago rather than the water vapor producing electronic ones, but then Potts has to light the wrong end then crush it on the floor. It does fill the theatre with a weird smell though. And the cast of Mad Men say that herbal smoking mixtures still make you cough and had most of the cast smoking tobacco by the end.