Re:View – ‘The Book Of Mormon’ – UK
After hearing the embarrassing interview on Radio 4, in which a hopelessly out-of-his-depth presenter asked Matt Stone and Trey Parker if he should take his granny to the show, I expected an evening of shocking satire. The UK production of ‘Book’ had opened the night before, and I’d nabbed early tickets by booking so far in advance that I had to take out insurance on them.
First, unless you’ve been living in a cave for twenty years the show is not shocking, and certainly not by London standards. It’s a smart, sweet satire with some funny songs and a nice point to be made about religion that lets Mormonism off the hook – and why not? Mormonism is not as toxic a cult as Scientology but a belief system, and like all belief systems it’s based on a set of absurdist metaphors that are not designed to be read as anything else.
The joke is that hopelessly naive missionaries go to an Africa far removed from their Lion King fantasies and discover that the only way to make people pay attention is by ripping up the book of factual absurdities and replacing them with something more relevant, even if it involves nicking bits from ‘Star Wars’.
Stephen Sondheim damningly described it as ‘a fun college show’, and of course he’s on the nose. The targets are soft and, it must be said, rather out-of-date in an Africa that’s rapidly being colonised by the Chinese. As a satirical series ‘South Park’ maintained its risky edge by the expedient of never delving very deeply into anything – the format is hardly suitable for that – and as a show, it achieves what the pair set out to do, entertaining with a little more thought than one would usually expect from a musical.
The show is front-loaded with its best numbers, especially ‘Turn It Off’. Part of the second half feels like filler and the end number is surprisingly weak, but the show never outstays its welcome. For a satire, there are very few topical references – Johnny Cochran’s hour came and went long ago – but the real surprise is realising just how few modern musicals have anything relevant to say at all, most being built around a showstopping effect and a hand-clapping finale. In this sense, ‘Mary Poppins’, with its subversive Oedipal message about married men and mothers, probably went further than anything else we’ve seen in a decade. ‘Book’ drums up a lot of good will and some terrifically funny choreography, as well as actor-proof roles – although, like most satires, there’s nothing for women – and the show mercifully doesn’t rely on special effects.
So ‘Book’ is to be welcomed. Judging from the roars of approval and the annoying habit of standing to applaud I suspect the first audience was full of New Yorkers – we’ll see how it fares in the Prince of Wales’ lovely revamped art deco theatre when less easily impressed Londoners arrive.