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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE BOOK OF MORMON
at the Prince of Wales

MISSIONARY CONTRITION
By RACHEL HALLIBURTON

  Ph: Johan Persson

It’s impossible to review The Book of Mormon without addressing the critical backlash that hit when it surfed a wave of hype into London. The Guardian dismissed it as "pretty toothless." The Telegraph found it "hard to warm to the show." The Times accused it of using postmodern irony as a thin disguise for racism. As a result this critic approached it with low expectations, which as every theatergoer knows is by far the best state of mind from which to begin an analysis. What a joy, then, to discover that the show is as brilliant as the American press had us believe – ingeniously choreographed, cleverly scripted, bristling with teeth, and just as provocative as you’d expect from the creators of South Park.
 
As everyone with a pulse now knows, South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone have collaborated with "Avenue Q" composer Robert Lopez to satirise the religion that only six months ago looked as if might take over the White House. Indeed, the extensive write-ups of Mitt Romney’s star status at Brigham Young University made him sound not unlike the show’s squeaky-clean super Mormon Elder Price, the great white-toothed hope of his year. We meet Elder Price in Salt Lake City just as he and his fellow students are gathering to discover where their missions abroad will be. He dreams that he will be rewarded for his top-of-the-class ranking by being sent to Orlando, but Price is wrong. Instead he realizes he is being dispatched to the country that his hapless partner, Elder Cunningham, dubs "Uga-han-da."
 
Much of the show’s satire skewers not just the supposedly Candide-like innocence of Mormons, but also those whose worldview is shaped by musicals – not least boys like Price whose vision of Africa is based entirely on The Lion King. This being Stone and Parker, what the missionaries in fact discover when they get to Uganda is a village ravaged by AIDS, where men rape babies to cure their HIV status, and the women live in fear of genital mutilation. The villagers have devised a cheerful little song, "Hasa Diga Eebowi," which translates as "Fuck You God." Disillusioned with his geeky partner, and outraged when his pristine white shirt is splattered by the blood of an African who has his head shot off, Gavin Creel’s Elder Price – all hair-gel and self-righteousness – is soon vowing to quit.
 
One of The Times’ chief objections was that Stone and Parker did not soften their satire by inventing a fictional African country. Yet in some senses that would have been more offensive, because it would have implied that what we see on stage represents all of Africa. If Uganda didn’t have problems with baby rape, issues of female genital mutilation and rising rates of AIDS then perhaps you could accuse them of being racist, but the sad fact is that it does. (Its government is working hard to tackle all these issues.) Does this mean it’s taboo to make jokes surrounding them? Well, it depends on the joke, doesn’t it?
 
I can’t pretend that there weren’t moments when I questioned how comfortable I was laughing at the jokes, but as the evening progresses it becomes clear to what extent this is a sophisticated comedy about perception. Yes, it revels in stereotypes; yes, it uses old-fashioned comedic devices; but the humour is turned firmly on the kind of religious mentality that thinks it can easily cure anything truly bad in the world. Creel and Jared Gertner – as the two buddies striving to convert the Ugandans by any means possible – are superlative, and Casey Nicholaw’s hilarious choreography (all over-eager elbows and pert attitude) means that this show is as sharp physically as it is verbally. As the supposedly innocent Nabulungi, Alexia Khadime reveals a voice that rips through the theatre. The moment when she and Gertner perform a raunchy love song as he baptizes her sums up the delightfully double-edged tone that makes this show such a forbidden treat.

 


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