Mojo Mickybo

Owen McCafferty
Boxed Cat Productions
Old Red Lion Theatre
(2011)

Mojo Mickybo production photo

Commissioned by Belfast's Kabosh theatre company in 1998 - it stayed in their repertoire for five years - and seen in London a few years back in an Arcola production that transferred to the Trafalgar Studios, this revival of Mojo Mickybo, directed by Emily Jenkins, gives McCafferty's play about two little boys growing into adolescence a new lease of life.

Designer Mike Lees has turned the small space of this little theatre into a concrete playground, its walls daubed with graffiti: 'Fuck,' a spurting cock, the Red Hand of Ulster, IRA and 'Liberate'. This is Belfast in the 1970s and the corrugated iron that tops the walls and the blackened holes that breach its walls are a reminder of the darker adult world outside.

From the start as the two adult actors spar, circling each other, we get a bullring tension that draws the audience in; then they assume their foul-mouthed ten-year-old personae. Mickybo (Roger Thomson), who lives on the other side of the bridge, claims 530 football headers in a row. Mojo (Iarla McGowan), whose home is 'just up the road' is impressed. In the long hot summer, 'when dogs jump off the bridge in the hope that they can fly,' they form themselves into a two-man gang, their enemies a pair called Gang the Wank and Fuckface, who stole one of their bikes.

They go to Saturday morning cinema together, up to no good crawling under seats and catching Uncle Sydney who runs the place in flagrante with the usherette. Their heroes are Batman, Superman and especially Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their favourite game impersonating the duo, one time taking them all the way to Bolivia (well it is actually Castletown but these boys have imagination).

We get a glimpse of family life in two households: Mojo's da goes out dancing on his own and somewhere he doesn't want his Ma to know about when he leaves Mojo in an ice-cream parlour; Mickybo's Da is always talking about them going off to Australia so the boys try to dig down there, or maybe through to China.

While mock shoot-outs fill their playtime hours they seem unaware of the real-life violence developing in the adult world around them. But as they get older it impinges. One of them's heard people talking. "Belfast is mad," he says, "and we're all going to be murdered in our beds." Batman, they think would be useless in Belfast, but Superman could stop the bullets ever hitting you. They still think violence a game, reporting a boy who stayed home with his mum and had his leg blown off by a bomb, 'but it left his trousers on'.

Soon that bridge takes on significance. We don't have to be told to know it linked communities across the sectarian divide. The Twelfth of July and Orange Day parades are there to remind us and soon, when Mojo returns from a visit with his mother to an auntie (for safety or to avoid the situation with his Da, it could be either), he finds Mickybo ganged up with Gank the Wank and Fuckface and he's unwanted. He's the other.

There is a lovely detail when McGowan's Mojo goes to knock on Mickybo's door. Each time he stands back and remembers to tuck his shirt into his trousers and check his flies, ensuring he is turned out properly before an adult answers. Such detail and the precision with which the actors switch position or adopt sometimes awkward physical changes that enable two actors to play 17 roles leaving no doubt at all which one they currently inhabit, quite remarkable when, in a fight with their rivals they play all four boys, even slipping out of a headlock and in a flash changing to a character on the other side.

Jenkins' direction hardly allows them to be still for a second and moves things at a brisk pace that highlights slower moments. This pair are no little angels but the production grounds their mischief in childhood innocence, an innocence that is lost as sectarianism kicks in McCafferty doesn't take sides or offer arguments or explanations, just reminds us of the effect of that divide, "Do you think they'd blow the bridge up?" one boy asks.

For all its happy simulacrum of childhood and vivid language Mojo Mickybo is a play that is driven by regret for what we know must be the answer. It is not telling us anything new and longer than its 80 minutes it might have started to have become a little repetitious but it provides its performers with an opportunity for splendid acting and their sincerity and Jenkins' invention make every minute hold.

"Mojo Mickybo" ended its run at The Old Red Lion Theatre on 4th June 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton