From the offset I feel the need to admit that I’m not a musical fan. I was bored by Mamma Mia, and The Sound of Music left me feeling nauseous. I could deal with Moulin Rouge because I could just look at Ewan McGregor. But, all this said and despite my prejudices, I absolutely loved The Book of Mormon.
It manages to be simultaneously ridiculous, hilarious and moving, but it has a darker edge and never allows the audience to get too comfortable. The production often leaves the concept of good taste far, far behind but always retains a sense of irony and a kernel of seriousness which makes it so compelling.
After enjoying roaring success on Broadway and having won no fewer than nine Tony awards, the production rocked up in the West End early this year with Gavin Creel taking the lead role from Andrew Rannells of The New Normal fame. For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, the musical tells the story of two Mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are sent to Uganda to spread the word of God. Their mission is soon derailed by the local warlord, inhospitable climate and, most of all, the Mormons themselves. As you would expect, the performance is slick, the set elaborate, and the direction of what is already a tight and carefully thought-out plot flawless, all of which comes together to leave the audience spellbound.
The song that marks the pair’s arrival in Africa (‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’) sets in motion a pattern that is repeated throughout the performance. The scene starts light heartedly as the missionaries sing along with the villagers before realising that they have been spiritedly belting out “Fuck you, God!” This garnered a laugh from the audience, but the joke quickly mutated: the lyrics then turned to AIDS, baby rape and domestic violence, treading a razor thin line between gallows humour and pointed social commentary. If you want to analyse it, this is typical of the production as a whole and, to my mind, what makes it so unique.
There is no gratuitous shock humour here. Instead the audience is carefully lulled into an easy laugh at the expense of fundamentalists and that nebulous group The Guardian might call “Daily Mail readers” before twisting the knife and adding a new and more troublesome dimension to the moment, combining humour with some very thorny issues which leaves the audience at a loss and unsure how to react. The production pulls us between laughter and outrage and gives us no help in choosing which path to take.
This is why I think that the muttering in the press about offending morals is basically unfounded. When Libby Purves says that “Beneath its jollity, [Mormon] is morally null and — without seeming to notice it — pretty racist,” she misses the point entirely. Shock tactics, making the audience cringe by having one of the Ugandan villager’s names mispronounced as Neutrogena, allowing a mock-heroic retelling of how the Book of Mormon was written and depicting a picture-book Jesus with an American accent is working towards showing us the inconsistencies and dangers not only of Mormonism, but Christianity and Western imperialism and, what’s worse, our own smug attitude.
The comedy is also not as unforgiving as many critics would lead you to believe. At the production’s close it is hinted that whereas religion might just be a lot of made-up stories, the basic tenants of Christianity (i.e. be nice to your neighbour and try to find a purpose for your life) are pretty good rules to live by. What could be so offensive about that?
All moral and ethical questions aside, the performance would be nothing without its songs. Penned by South Park creators Matt Stone, Robert Lopez and Trey Parker, their sheer originality and force were a delight to behold. There was the delightfully snide ‘Making things up again’, the wonderful ‘Turn It Off’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.’ If you only go to this production for one thing then it should be to witness the glory of a prancing Hitler in leather. It will haunt your dreams.
All in all, if you are looking for an evening of top class theatre and some edgy humour you could do much worse than The Book of Mormon, but the production is so much more than that. When Andrea Mann calls it “Mormonumental” I don’t think she’s far wrong.