Quiffs are high for Jez ‘Jerusalem’ Butterworth’s rock and roll Soho gangster comedy, which has a super-hot cast, a filthy mouth, and more pungent moments than a hangover on Berwick Street. Yes, if you’ve ever fantasised about TV’s Merlin, Ron Weasley and ‘Q’ from James Bond going mental with knives, guns and speed pills then this is the show for you. But Ian Rickson’s subtle West End production has a lot more to offer than thrills for the fangirls (and boys).
Award-winning 1995 debut ‘Mojo’ was the lethally funny weapon with which Butterworth held up the theatre world as a young man. It hasn’t aged a bit. It’s a swaggering young man’s piece: high on aimless aggro and ripe spiv talk, set in the backroom of a dodgy 50s nightclub where – according to professional smalltimer Potts – all the teenage girls in London shit themselves with excitement whenever rock and roller Silver Johnny thrusts himself onto the stage.
As Johnny, young actor Tom Rhys Harries nearly steals the show merely by limbering up to go on and make those girls ‘cream their cocoa’. But the real drama unfolds after the gig, when feckless young wannabes Sweets, Skinner, Potts and Baby jockey for power after Baby’s hardman father Ezra turns up dead, in two different bins.
The young cast are superb at playing these bruised apples who want to go bad. As Sweets, Rupert Grint makes an impressive stage debut as sidekick’s sidekick (imagine Ron has dropped out of Hogwarts to deal pills and learned a lot more swearwords). Daniel Mays is cringe-makingly good as his jittery pal, Potts. And Colin Morgan is unrecognisable as their petulant scapegoat, Skinny.
But the night belongs to Ben Whishaw. As abused young Baby, whose dead dad ‘did the funny on him’, he channels all the ambiguous sexual menace of the quiffs-and-blades era. His feline progress from reckless joker to gangster is completely riveting – and his singing bodes well for that forthcoming Freddie Mercury movie. Like its heroes, Butterworth’s play sometimes has more mouth than trousers. But it makes up for it in thrills and spills: this is as sharp as the West End gets.
By Caroline McGinn