Review: The Book of Mormon (Theatre Royal Glasgow)
A Hilarious Period Piece of Shock Value
There was a time when showing Hitler having anal sex in hell on stage would have been shocking. It would be childish to pretend it isn’t still provocative, but audiences nowadays are a hardier brood. The Book of Mormon is a shining example of the late-2000s-to-early-2010s obsession with shock value in popular culture, brought to you (in part) by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park. It focuses on Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are finally old enough to embark on the adventure of a lifetime that awaits any young Mormon – becoming missionaries! But self-obsessed Elder Price’s holier-than-thou attitude is put to the test when he learns that he won’t be preaching to converts in his beloved Orlando, and instead, he is being sent to Uganda.
Photo Credit: Paul Coltas
It is a plot concocted intentionally to produce as many opportunities for outrage as possible. The great irony of this is that it isn’t the button-pushing productions like this that are truly shocking today – it’s the comedy that is seemingly pedestrian and relatable. It’s the shows you go back to years later only to realise how much of it was underpinned by transphobia, fatphobia, ableism or well-disguised racism that has aged like milk. The Book of Mormon hasn’t suffered the same fate because it puts its subjects right onto the stage, and never pretended to be a true reflection of them or their lives.
And that is the starting point to understanding their depiction of Africa. Namely, that it isn’t Africa. It is a staged imagination of what Africa is, where the intention is not to laugh at African poverty but rather Western (especially white) ignorance. And it doesn’t mind taking jabs at other musicals in the process: the number “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is a (frequently hilarious) parody of “Hakuna Matata”, replacing the nauseating optimism of a phrase that means “no worries” with “fuck you God”. And when the young villager Nabulungi dreams of escaping her hometown and moving to “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (read “Salt Lake City”, the capital of Utah), the joke is at the expense of delusional Americans who believe all foreigners want to live in their uninspiring cities. Now, this review will hardly be the final word on the topic of whether The Book of Mormon’s depiction of Ugandan people is problematic, and I wouldn’t want it to be. Would it be better to have a touring musical that creates a more earnest representation of Africa rather than simply mocking western perception of it? Definitely. Is there are risk of this interpretation going over people’s heads, and create a culture of audiences who take an uncomfortable amount of glee in “taboo” comedy? Yes, exhaustingly so. But I reckon that, taken on its own merits, black people are not the butt of the joke in The Book of Mormon: white people are.
The real and obvious target of the performance is, you guessed it, Mormons. It highlights loopholes and funny conveniences in their belief systems, ridicules the fool-proof method of “turning off” inconvenient urges or doubts, and highlights the material harm of the threat of eternal damnation and covers it with silly songs like “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”. So it comes as a surprise that the final message on religion is a positive one, advocating its power to renew hope in a community no matter how false its foundations are. For the devoutly religious this is unlikely to make up for the relentless mocking of the last two hours. But for the unwaveringly atheist it may inspire some unexpected compassion.
None of this will come as news for self-proclaimed theatre kids, who have long since absorbed the musical into the beloved canon of West End shows. The question is whether this production and this cast stand up to scrutiny. Well to anyone who has seen it before I doubt anything, from the staging to the choreography to the direction, will deviate even slightly from what you expect. It is so polished it is like it was taken straight out of the box and placed on the stage. You can see all the years of the musical’s comedic heritage imbedded in all the cheesy smiles of the ensemble. And it is a heritage it has more than earned: there is so much fun in the choreography and the songs, but still makes space for more heartfelt moments between the characters. And its cast are more than worthy to perform it around the UK, especially the central duo of Robert Colvin as Elder Price and Connor Peirson as Elder Cunningham (but mostly Colvin. I struggle to think of a time I have ever seen a better central performance in a musical). My only reservation is that the baby-faced (and remarkably talented) Aviva Tulley, who plays Nabulungi, ought not to be dressed in a costume that makes her look like a young teenager given that she is the romantic interest to a grown man. But that aside, this is a show that knows its audience. I don’t mind admitting that in an age when “boundary-pushing comedy” often translates to barely-veiled prejudice I approached The Book Of Mormon with more than a little trepidation. But taken with a pinch of salt, or at the very least an admittance that the songs are catchy as hell, there is no need to turn these bible-bashers away when they come knocking at your door. Four stars.
Whispers from the Crowd: "Loved it, wouldn't reccomend it to my mother though!" "We've seen it a couple of times now. It's hilarious, its subversive, it's everything you could want."
The Book of Mormon will play at Theatre Royal Glasow until November 26th