The Book of Mormon

September 15, 2022 | By | Reply More

★★★☆☆       Problematic

Playhouse: Tue 13 Sept – Sat 8 Oct 2022
Review by Hugh Simpson

The juggernaut that is The Book of Mormon rolls into the Playhouse in all its filthy excess for an extended stay until Saturday 8 October, 2022.

The Book of Mormon is undoubtedly impressive in its staging, but is a distinctly troubling watch – and not because of its depiction of religion.

The Book of Mormon. UK touring company. Photo by Paul Coltas

The musical about two young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda has, of course, been such a hit that nothing I or anyone else can say will stop the Playhouse being packed out.

It may be puzzling that the 2011 musical dealing with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been as much of a success in the UK as in the US, where Mormonism is much more of a presence; over here most of us have little knowledge of the movement beyond a vague association with the Osmonds or Mitt Romney.

The pedigree of the show’s writers has a lot to do with it. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone teamed up with Robert Lopez for the book and songs, and as far as Lopez’s career is concerned this is certainly much closer to Avenue Q than to Frozen.

The warnings about content and strong language are certainly necessary, although anyone familiar with Parker and Stone’s work will be aware that the supposedly ‘adult’ content is of a decidedly juvenile kind. The age restrictions in place are unfortunate in that some scenes – notably the ‘spooky Mormon hell dream’ – seem designed to appeal to sniggering 13-year-olds as much as anyone else.

The Book of Mormon. UK touring company. Photo by Paul Coltas

The language may be fruity, but we have all heard worse. Furthermore, anybody worrying about blasphemy need not be unduly concerned. Although fun is poked at the missionaries’ credulity and naïveté, and Biblical literalism is lampooned, religion gets off lightly. The Mormons are shown as fundamentally well-meaning, and the claim that religious belief is a positive force is explicitly made.

The real problems lie in the show’s depiction of Africa, which is a ragbag of the most hackneyed, ill-informed stereotypes imaginable. 80% of the inhabitants of this fantasy version of ‘Uganda’ have AIDS, they live in mud huts, they are ravaged by famine, disease and war. FGM is rife and babies are raped. Knowledge of medicine is so poor that the doctor has maggots in his scrotum.

The main African character Nabulungi has her name variously rendered as Neutrogena, Necrophilia, and even once on this occasion – cringingly – as Nicola Sturgeon. Because foreign names are inherently funny, obviously.

No doubt this will be defended on the basis that the script sets out to offend everyone, but there is too much punching down being done. Especially considering how much care has been taken over the portrayal of Mormonism – to the extent that the church is apparently fairly happy with the result – it just smacks of laziness.

There is definitely an element of mocking Western attitudes to Africa, but this thin veneer of satire falls victim to the old Alf Garnett trope of audiences laughing with the bigotry rather than at it. Furthermore, the whole story cannot avoid coming across as the tired old ‘white saviour’ narrative of the foreigners helping the Africans who are unable to help themselves.

Apparently changes to the script have been made recently, giving the African characters more agency, to reflect the concerns of cast members in America. If this is the case, all I can say is I am glad I never saw the original version.

All of which means that it is impossible to give a wholehearted recommendation to a production that otherwise has so much going for it.

The Book of Mormon. UK touring company. Photo by Paul Coltas

There can be no denying the craft and professionalism of the routines, featuring a huge and well-drilled chorus brilliantly choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (who co-directs with Parker). The tunes are as catchy as you would expect, with constant references to many other musicals designed to please fans of the genre, as well as nods to other popular culture touchstones. An energetically tuneful band under MD Colm O’Regan provide unstinting musical support.

Robert Colvin and Conner Peirson, as the two hapless missionaries, have considerable stage presence, with Colvin’s strong voice and Peirson’s comic aptitude impressing. The excellent Aviva Tulley is criminally underused as Nabulungi, while Ewen Cummins shows real humour as her father. It is heartening to see a big-budget show that gives opportunities to so many performers of colour, but is a shame that it could not be in a more sensible context.

Scott Pask’s design, Ann Roth’s costumes, Brian McDevitt’s lighting and Brian Ronan’s sound are all impeccable, and in many ways it is churlish not to give this production more than three stars. However, that would imply a recommendation that I do not feel equipped to give.

Life of Brian this isn’t, but its creators are certainly very naughty boys; indeed, they positively revel in that status. You probably already know whether or not you will like this, so don’t let me stop you.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (including one interval)
Playhouse, 18-22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA
Tuesday 13 September – Saturday 8 October 2022
Mon-Sat at 7.30 pm (not Mon 19); Matinees Fri/Sat 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: Book here

The Book of Mormon. UK touring company. Photo by Paul Coltas

ENDS

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