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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Harold Pinter


  Brendan Coyle, Colin Morgan, Daniel Mays, Rupert Grint/ Ph: Simon Annand

Violence, desperate machismo, big quiffs and a very small gun – Jez Butterworth’s 1995 debut play, which blazed onto the Royal Court’s stage 18 years ago and is now widely regarded as a forerunner of the 1990s new-writing renaissance, is back in the West End. Ian Rickson, the Court’s former artistic director and a Butterworth collaborator who has directed every one of the dramatist’s works, is once again at the helm. He delivers a production of noisy swagger, in which the pyrotechnics of Butterworth’s jagged, vivid language burn bright, and the performances sizzle with volatility. And if, as some critics remarked when the piece first appeared, there’s not quite enough substance beneath the surface glitter, the effect is still often dazzling.
Set in the seedy clubland of 50s Soho, Butterworth’s fast-talking drama sees a bunch of small-time gangsters facing bloody retribution when rivalries erupt into murder and their boss, the owner of the Atlantic Club, turns up sawn in half and stuffed into a pair of dustbins. At the centre of the hostilities is Silver Johnny, a teenage rock ’n roll singer who is the Atlantic’s star turn and so sexually irresistible that he makes female punters lose bowel control – or, as one character rather colourfully puts it, “come their cocoa in public.”
The action begins with Tom Rhys Harries’ Johnny, in a gleaming silver suit, zipping and gyrating across the floor of a scruffy upstairs room to the booming music below, before descending to entertain his adoring public. Hours later, he’s been kidnapped by a hostile club-owning competitor, and his former employer, Ezra, is dead meat. That leaves the boys back at the Atlantic, who are already jacked up on pills and booze, awaiting further gory developments in a state of barely controlled terror and jittery paranoia. Their only weapons are an old cutlass and a tiny pistol. And the behaviour of Baby, Ezra’s unstable and sadistic son, grows dangerously unpredictable as he prepares to seize the tawdry crown of his dad’s little kingdom.
Butterworth’s lost boys talk with the dark comic menace of early Pinter, and owe something, too, to Tarantino’s hapless criminals and Guy Ritchie’s Brit flick bullyboys. But for all the rhythmic wit of the dialogue, they are more troubled, less confident, younger and more vulnerable than their 1990s cinematic counterparts. Their alliances and squabbles mimic the dynamics of the school playground, and they compete like children for the approval of Mickey (Brendan Coyle), Ezra’s underling and their superior. It also emerges that Baby was sexually abused by Ezra – and is harbouring a twisted jealousy of the attention his father has been lavishing on Silver Johnny.
In a strong company, Ben Whishaw is mesmerising in the role of Baby, his eyes as black as the empty sockets of a skull, his body whip-thin and serpentine. There’s a particularly memorable, off-kilter moment when he returns to the club from a foray into the sickly morning light outside with a gift of toffee apples for everyone, which he presents in a weird bouquet that has a murky, toxic gleam. Much of his unhinged ire is directed at put-upon Skinny, who is played with a blend of teacher’s-pet snitchiness and a touching sense of bewildered affront by Colin Morgan. Daniel Mays as Potts handles the text with lip-licking relish and meticulous comic timing, while Rupert Grint – best known for Harry Potter and here making his stage debut – brings a naive tenderness to Sweets. This is very much a first play – it’s more raw, unfocused energy and bravado than complexity or craft – but with it, the writer who went on to bring us the huge hit Jerusalem made quite an entrance.


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