melody loses her mojo

Creating plays about urban youths of mixed and varied races can be tricky in theatre, with its preponderance of white, middle-class professionals. Even despite the research that goes on within modern city communities, it only takes one slip to halt the suspension of disbelief, or an accent going south for a second to break the spell.

Luckily Melody Loses Her Mojo is in no such danger under the confident hand of Keith Saha and the 20 Stories High company – the play has a definite ring of authenticity; the bluntness, vulgarity and patois of modern youngsters raised on a transcontinental diet of influences and a superb young cast able to carry it off ensure that.

The set-up seems simple enough: Melody is in a foster home, having been separated from her little sister Harmony. Her guileless care-home friend Rizla is a constant source of temptation – he deals drugs but is fundamentally a loveable sort – but she has to stay on the straight and narrow if she’s gong to have a rapprochement with Harmony and make something of her life. Aiding and abetting her is Mojo, a stuffed-toy-cum-backpack who may or may be alive and irritating her is new arrival Blessing. Not only that but we get hip-hop, dance, puppetry and street art along the way – imagine Sesame Street with a liberals sprinkling of fucks.

The first half zings along with beatboxing accompaniments from the incredible Hobbit and help from two puppeteers who double up, at least in one case, as a depressingly familiar social worker stereotype, all mung beans and sandals. But the confidence and verve is winning and the curiously affecting moments when Mojo attempts to rein in Melody’s more atavistic impulses are a delight. There’s something fascinating here regarding Melody’s relationship with the puppet, but it’s all abandoned in the second half as the lead trio head off in search of solutions to their rather sudden troubles.

The sub-plot that involves the hapless Rizla being conned into life as a prostitute represents an unpleasant tonal shift that doesn’t really work in the vaguely magical setting of the care-home; a setting where fourth walls can be boldly dispensed with and the adults adopt the same roles as Timothy Claypole or Derek Griffiths in an 80s children’s TV show; benevolent, hyper-real overseers who gently push the narrative along.

When the plot kicks in and Melody takes her gang on a trip to the Lakes to kidnap Harmony (the others developing and largely resolving their own baggage) something rather pleasing is left behind in favour of character- and plot-development. It doesn’t spoil Melody Loses Her Mojo but it certainly makes it less interesting than the intriguing first act; ironically the disappearance of Mojo in the narrative sees the play sag and drift a little into rather more humdrum, Radio 4-style territory.

Still, there’s much to enjoy here, not least the wonderful performances of the three leads, beautifully-crafted soundtrack and lovely puppet work. And there are no facile endings either; the lives of Melody, Rizla and Blessing may not be easy – and perhaps they don’t always ring true – but it was a pleasure to spend time in their company.

Melody Loses Her Mojo
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 28 September