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Review: Book of Mormon (West End)
14 Apr 2013
Rachel Thomson reviews the controversial new West End hit...
As you sit in the auditorium waiting for The Book of Mormon to begin, you’d probably be forgiven for having some preconceived ideas around what you’re about to see. A comedy musical about two Mormon missionaries who encounter confusion and female genital mutilation in Uganda, co-written by those responsible for the lyrical genius that was Chocolate Salty Balls? Call me a snob, but I wasn’t exactly expecting Pulitzer-winning stuff: I was prepared to be entertained, to laugh and, hopefully, not be too disgusted to enjoy myself properly (if you haven’t already guessed from the introduction, I’m not the world’s biggest South Park fan - don’t judge me). What I wasn’t expecting was to leave the theatre feeling like I’d just watched something really quite heart-warming. The number of F- and C-words flying around may have rivalled that a Sauchiehall Street taxi rank at 3.05am on a chilly Sunday morn, but actually you may leave The Book of Mormon with a smile on your face, a skip in your step and faith in your heart. Like church, but for atheists with a really dirty sense of humour and a penchant for creative swearing and casual racism.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised. The show has created such a critical storm since its opening on Broadway in 2011 that a speedy move to London’s West End was inevitable. The show was nominated for a staggering fourteen Tony Awards, won nine of them (including Best Musical and Best Original Score), and picked up a host of other gongs, from the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical to the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album.
The story around the development of the show is almost as interesting as the runaway success story of the musical itself: two teams of writers separately considering a work based on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (read: Mormons) met for the first time by chance in 2003, and decided it might well be in their best interests to collaborate. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, best known for South Park and Team America: World Police, had been contemplating some sort of Mormon spoof for years, but hadn’t quite known what format they wanted to use. Robert Lopez, co-creator of Avenue Q, suggested that an all-singing, all-dancing Broadway musical was the perfect vehicle to satirise a faith known for their grinning, over-eager sincerity. Writing and workshopping around tight animation schedules and deadlines proved extremely challenging, but eight years and four weeks of rehearsals later The Book of Mormon premiered... only six days after producers first saw the finished show!
On the surface it may seem to simply parody the Mormon Church but, in practice, the musical does a lot more than that. It’s funny from the word go, as you’d expect – I think I counted the first audience guffaw around 15 seconds in – but at no point are you really laughing at the characters. The writers have managed to satirise without being scathing, and particularly the two protagonists are fully-realised, recognisably human people who actually cut very sympathetic figures. Following the wide-eyed young Elder Price and Elder Cunningham as they encounter people and things they’d never dreamed of (utterly convinced all along that they’re going to change the world), you get swept along on their journey. You feel for them when they begin to realise that the world outside Salt Lake City is not quite as receptive to their message as they once believed, and their naiveté is more endearing than ridiculous.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the all of the performers are outstanding, with particular stand-outs Gavin Creel, Jared Gertner and Stephen Ashfield, who are perfectly cast as the three featured missionaries. However, I was struck by the energy of the cast as a whole, particularly during the massive ensemble number. The pace of the show for the most part is frighteningly quick, and certainly from an audience perspective it was difficult to imagine keeping that up for 2 hours, never mind doing eight shows a week. Highlights include anything where the entire group of missionaries perform Broadway-esque song and dance numbers in the African plains, particularly ‘Turn It Off’ and the wonderfully offensive ‘We Are Africa’, which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of those well-meaning, religious white men politely elbowing their way into a foreign culture, fortified by the idea that they alone know what’s good and proper for the natives.
The Mormons, it has to be said, are in no way the only target of the laughs. Along the way Parker, Stone and Lopez lampoon religion in general, particularly blind faith and belief in the unbelievable, ignorance of other cultures, ‘All-American’ ideals, TV evangelism, Starbucks, the desire to be special and, most noticeably of all, traditional musical theatre. It’s worth Googling the list of famous Broadway hits that gets spoofed before seeing the show or, like me, you’ll only pick up the obvious ones at the time. Neither traditional nor modern Broadway shows escape: Bye Bye Birdie is right up there with Wicked and The Lion King. Throughout, however, the parody is pretty gentle, and nowhere near as vulgar as I’d feared it might be - cheeky winks to the audience are charming, and never without a wide-eyed smile. The music is catchy if not world-changing, and I’d defy anyone to go along and not come out humming and/or skipping (some of us did both). The ending note is a hopeful and surprisingly uplifting one: when it comes to religion, faith and doubt, those unbelievable stories frequently serve only as a metaphor, and what’s truly important is the underlying message of doing good and helping others. Parker and Stone have described it as 'an atheist’s love letter to religion' – well, colour me converted!
None of this is to say there aren’t elements that could be improved upon. There are parts which are offensive in a way that could potentially be toned down - they can actually be a little distracting from the smarter humour. There are also some things that could stand to be tightened up: sections of the show still feel very young, and I wonder if a keener critical eye or more ruthless editing in the rehearsal process could have cut some scenes down, or picked up the pace in the few places - it does occasionally stall a little, and certain jokes are spun out just a fraction too long.
In a show as constantly high-energy as this, any performance even a little under par can stick out like a sore thumb. On this evening it was Alexia Khadime as Nabulungi, the Ugandan village leader’s daughter, who gave a slightly flat Act I performance, leaving the audience a little more difficulty in warming to her. The opposite problem is also true at points, with a few slips into ‘pantomime’ territory that detract from the rest of what’s happening on stage, and there are some tiny portions of choreography which are executed just slightly less slickly than the rest.
The reality is though that The Book of Mormon is a very young show, particularly to the West End where it opened under two months ago, and it will go on to develop and change over time. If this is where it is now, I can only imagine how utterly fantastic it might be in six months’ time. And I’m not just saying that so they’ll put in a good word for me with the guy upstairs.