I went to Mojo alone on a Wednesday in May last year. Achy and sweltering from a newly developed spring cold, I was in a foul mood and feeling a tad bitter about all things Oxford, a resentment which very much extended to student drama. 

However, that night in the Pilch was like holding onto a live wire for 90 minutes. 

The audience slipped straight into 50s Soho, efficiently conjured by Teagan Riches’ set design. Stringy silver tinsel was spread thinly over the black brick walls; a veneer of shiny nightclub chic with a claustrophobic sort of glamour, a seedy kind of menace. Factor in the discarded beer cans and you could practically smell the stale cigarette smoke.  

The entire show took place within the back rooms of the Atlantic Club, a haunt for wayward kids, petty criminals, and the odd[ly] sinister figure. A dispute over Silver Johnny (Izzy Lever — great dance moves and good fearful expressions), the budding rock star with the power to make young women soil themselves in ecstasy (Harry Styles eat your heart out), spirals into betrayal and a desperate hideout from the loosely defined, but undeniably vicious, Mr. Ross and his gang. 

It is difficult to be much more specific in describing the plot, since throughout his debut, Jez Butterworth revels in and extracts tension from ambiguity. Much like Pinter before him, he displays a distinct preference for evoking rather than narrating. The wonder of director Max Morgan’s work, then, came from being alive to the script’s shimmering variety; mining it for every single moment of humour, tightening nerves, and, ultimately, utter desolation. 

Morgan was aided, no doubt, by his remarkable cast, each of whom deserves praise. 

The (mostly) warm double act of Potts and Sweets, Leah Aspden and Emma Pollock, was the audience’s gateway into the world of Mojo. The two ricocheted off one another, reinforcing both their mutual and their personal delusions. They shared pills which turned their piss black, various health problems, but also something approaching a friendship, uncommon in a world in which torsos turn up in the bin. 

Pollock played Sweets to wide-eyed perfection, genuinely moving in his moments of childish fear. Aspden’s bravado as Potts was fantastic, and his circumlocutory delays under interrogation an example of someone nailing challenging dialogue. 

Stepan Mysko von Schultze was upright and uptight as Mickey, the gang’s de facto leader. Mickey was perhaps a less rewardingly neurotic character than the others, but successfully imbued nonetheless by von Schultze with the authority necessary to make his eventual disintegration work. 

Sam Thomas’s Skinny was brilliantly kinetic, an energetic bundle of tics and anxieties. In portraying a man-in-the-middle, fragile and insecure, louder than he is confident, destined to be both a follower and a victim, Thomas did fantastic work. 

The final principal was Baby, the prodigal son, the cutlass-wielding psychopath, lent an astonishing degree of presence by Noah Radcliffe-Adams. Each time Radcliffe-Adams sauntered in, normally accompanying himself with some period-appropriate rock ’n roll, it seemed as though the temperature dropped one or two degrees. Every saccharine word, every dead smile, every predatory movement, dripped with undefined threat.

When the five were onstage together, it fizzed. Turns out the Shakespearean power struggle between Baby (a dark Hamlet analogue) and Mickey is a pretty good indicator of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Watching the motley crew spiral and sweat, drink and smoke, it was hard not to get a gnawing sensation, a somatic fear that something terrible had to happen. 

When it inevitably did, jaws visibly dropped. It seems a shame to describe the play’s climax too explicitly, an indecorous drawing back of the curtain. That being said, the cumulative effect of the simple yet thrillingly bold lighting, Will Wilson’s strategically deployed drumming (a perfect use of live music), large volumes of blood, and some fully committed acting, left the audience winded. 

On every level, Mojo simply worked. The tautness of the show was a credit to everyone who worked on it. Tension was meticulously ratcheted up, but never wasted; in fact it often culminated in a sudden crash from Wilson’s drums. 

Watching Mojo was not a comfortable experience. It exhausted, it disoriented, and it unsettled. It was everything you go to a student play hoping for, and everything I hoped to see in Oxford.