FLASH-FLOOD OF TESTOSTERONE IN OLD SOHO: FEMALE CRITIC UNMOVED.
Three distinct audiences will head for this play. It brought an Olivier to Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court in 1995, and some will come in mere homage to the playwright whose eloquence and mythic echoes gave the world Jerusalem, 14 years later, and to his director Ian Rickson. Then there will be (already are!) hordes of teenage girls drawn by the casting of Rupert Grint, Potter’s Ron Weasley. And finally it may lure a new generation of young men, drawn in by the £ 10 day-tickets after hearing that it is very Tarantino. Black comedy, gangsters, a sleazy club, a corpse chopped in half in two dustbins, a shooting, and sharply dressed young men forever calling one another cunts. Add to that an ecstatic programme essay on early rock ‘n roll, and the playwright’s claim that he wanted dialogue “as rhythmic and compulsive as Shakin’ All Over ,or Hound Dog” . Sweary rock ‘n roll! Cool.
It is set in 1958 in Ezra’s club on Dean Street, perfectly realized by Ultz and given meaningful extra gloom by references (classic Butterworth, and effective) to a fine July day outside. It starts in the upstairs room where six guys, in various combinations, fret over the poaching of their star Silver Johnny by a rival, and break the news of the owner’s murder to his weird son, Baby. The second act is downstairs, as they endure a terrified siege alongside the corpse-bins..
The idealized image of a grimly macho ‘50s Soho clearly gave the 26-year-old Butterworth a heavy dose of pre-natal nostalgia. There are no women – the only mention of them being scatological remarks about how they lose control of their bodily functions when Silver Johnny is onstage. Daniel Mays provides the humour and some humanity, in a wilder reprise of his terrific TV role as Ronnie Biggs and his recent Donmar part as a dodgy lawyer. His cheeky-fixer facade crumbles into hapless panic and little amphetamine spurts of viciousness. Grint as Sweets the drug provider is an endearing fool; Ben Whishaw is frankly superb as the damaged, cold-eyed Baby. The second act, which he dominates, is by far the best.
But to be honest, this supposed modern-classic almost lost me before that. Call the characters classical archetypes, interpret it as an epic clash of two kingdoms with Baby as Hamlet, or an “austere, savage, hilarious ritual” of male tribes (that’s what Butterworth says in the programme) and you can admire it. Everyone did when it was fresh and shocking in 1995. But two decades of TV and film obsession with similar macho gangs, monotonous cuntified abuse and self-pitying male self-forgiveness have blunted that sharpness. It’s finely acted, set, and directed (though it could lose ten minutes in the first half) and I am almost ashamed to say it left me cold. But it did, it really did.
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