The Book of Mormon Review Prince of Wales Theatre
Critics seem to have been rather divided over this show, which has just spectacularly crash landed in the West End from a contentious but incredibly successful run across the pond. The public however have voted with their feet; the box office took £2.1 million on its second day, smashing all previous West End box office records into smithereens.
You can understand why some people would have reservations. The Book Of Mormon is undoubtedly puerile, crass, vulgar and insulting to pretty much everybody featured in it, or who is even mentioned. It is also clever, funny, warm-hearted, slick, professional and unexpectedly sweet. Unsurprisingly this could also be a description of South Park, writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s colossal animated hit. The Book of Mormon is basically one of their cartoons come to life.
The story is quite uncomplicated; two eager young Mormons, Elder Price (tall and flashy) and Elder Cunningham (short and fat) are despatched to Uganda to spread the word of the prophet Joseph Smith. Elder Cunningham is delighted “Uganda! Coooool! Where is that?”, while Elder Price is less enthused, mainly because Uganda is not Orlando, where he had secretly hoped to fulfil his mission.
His doubts are not allayed upon their arrival in Africa, which is emphatically “nothing like the Lion King!”. Within minutes they are introduced to the horrors of AIDS, theft, child rape and female circumcision. Yes, you heard me. Nothing is taboo in Trey and Matt world. The contrast between their gentle, affectionate mockery of the buttoned-down Mormons and their savage, bitterly, darkly comic depiction of the harsh realities of life in a poor Ugandan village is stark. Our boys, still resolute with their beaming smiles and crisp white shirts, are ignored and ridiculed by the villagers who have more pressing concerns in the shape of General Butt-F***ing-Naked (yup), a blood-thirsty, one-eyed warlord who wants to circumcise all of the females in the village. Gradually however their interest is piqued, largely due to the inventive re-scripting of The Book by the mendacious Elder Cunningham – look out for some surprising and familiar cameos – who also begins an unlikely romance with a village girl whose name he cannot pronounce. The rest of the tale is a predictable, comic series of misunderstandings, recriminations and soul-searching, culminating in a convenient ending which contrives to make everybody happy.
That’s the thing with The Book Of Mormon; it’s advertised as biting, shocking satire, but in truth for every ten minutes you spend with your hands over your eyes going “They can’t! They won’t… Oh God, they just did”, you will spend another five grinning soppily and saying “Awwwww.” It is unashamedly cheesy, and if you took out the blasphemy, the genital mutilation, the (often painful) physical comedy and the frog abuse, you would be left with a genuinely heart-warming, gentle romp, which pays affectionate tribute to shows such as Annie and The King and I. The people who will be offended by this show are the kind of people who would be offended by a child saying “bum.” The Book of Mormon is potty-mouthed, irreverent and gleefully obsessed by bodily functions. Everybody is treated with the same derision and ridicule, but there is no real malice to the mockery, and nobody is ever completely stripped of their dignity.
The other thing that people forget is that this is a SHOW in the true, West End sense of the word. The sets, lighting, choreography and effects are all deliberately spectacular, and the songs, from the pen of Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, are souped-up and flamboyant performances. Memorable comic moments include You and Me (But Mainly Me) by Elder Price; Turn It Off, a little homily by the Mormon Brotherhood on the importance of crushing ones feelings, and the African parody Hasa Diga Eebowai, which does not bear translation on paper, but which drew horrified gasps as well as unstoppable giggles from the people around us. Sal Tlay Ka Siti, in which Elder Cunningham’s paramour, Nabulungi dreams of a Mormon paradise, is actually rather touching, as well as being very funny (“a Red Cross on every corner, and as much flour as you can eat”). On the other hand, Baptize Me was an example of just how low the humour could go, with the word Baptize becoming a smutty innuendo. “I’m Wet with Salvation.” Oh dear. The big number was undoubtedly Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, with a giant, guitar-playing Satan straight out of South Park, devils waving doughnuts in a menacing fashion and a dancing Hitler. Such fun.
Performances were uniformly good – whilst no great depths of emotion were required of the actors, this level of low-brow, cheeky comedy cannot be easy to pull off. One phrase wrongly inflected and a whole joke can fall flat, and in a show like this which relies on recurring comedy themes that could be disastrous. Thankfully it didn’t happen. Gavin Creel was unfortunately absent on the night that I attended, but the role of Elder Price was ably filled by the unfeasibly good-looking, glinty-toothed Ashley Day. Jared Gertner irritated and entertained as Elder Cunningham, Alexia Khadime was enchanting as Nabalungi and Chris Jarman glowered and growled as The General. Stephen Ashfield was very funny as the desperately repressed homosexual Elder Mckinley, all throbbing veins and awkward almost-touching-throat-clearing moments.
The Book Of Mormon does not hide what it is, in fact it shouts it from the billboards, and most people will have already made up their minds whether or not it is “their kind of thing”. But for those of you who may still be undecided let’s get one thing clear; if you are looking for elegant, witty, sophisticated comedy then this is most certainly not the show for you. Subtle it is not. However if you want an evening of larger than life razzmatazz which will keep you laughing and wincing in equal measure throughout, then you must see The Book Of Mormon. That is, if you can get a ticket.
Review by Genni Trickett
Important Information: Contains swearing, sexual content, offensive content.
Booking From: Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Currently Booking Until: Saturday, 11 January 2014
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
The Prince of Wales Theatre
31 Coventry Street
Updated 4th June 2014