The Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon, the latest offering from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is not only one of the funniest shows you will ever see in the West End, but also one of the most captivating. Unlike so many of the time-weary musicals that continue their unending West End runs, The Book of Mormon, showing at the Prince of Wales Theatre, captures the popular zeitgeist with its juxtaposition of unflinching character sincerity and audience cynicism. As the show builds and builds, with seemingly no weak number amongst its repertoire of songs, the comedy resides in the space between what the characters are saying and what Stone and Parker are suggesting. One feels as if the American comedy duo is sitting either side of you throughout, offering you the occasional wink and smile of complicity.
Following the lives of two Mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are sent on a two-year mission in Uganda, The Book of Mormon is as much a coming-of-age drama as it is a scathing satire, albeit one that is cast within the peculiar matrix of Mormon social values. Having hoped to spend his two years in Orlando, Florida, the All-American Elder Price (Gavin Creel) is quickly disillusioned by the country’s poverty and the apathy of the local villagers to the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Meanwhile, Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner), who initially casts himself as ‘a follower not a leader’, steps in to give the local people hope in the face of local militia leader General Butt-Fucking-Naked (so named because he drinks the blood of his enemies while nude). However, Elder Cunningham’s tendency to embellish the “truth”, as well as the fact that he has never actually read the Book of Mormon, leads him to fabricate gospels in order to make them more relevant to the plight of the local Ugandan people.
After some tribulations, in which Elder Price experiences a ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ (used primarily to scare five-year-olds with eternal damnation for eating a cookie without asking), the village is united under the Church of the Latter Day Saints and throws off their militia oppressors. However, in the face of mounting pressure from the head of the Church over the false doctrine taught to the people, Elder Cunningham is announced by the Ugandan people to be a new prophet and the fourth part of the bible (the third part being the Book of Mormon) is written: The Book of Arnold.
As one might expect from Stone and Parker, The Book of Mormon finds the acceptable boundary of each taboo in its crosshairs and then tramples all over them. Nothing is sacred in the show, and it is this that makes it so appealing. The list of targets is endless, but a show that so unflinchingly tackles topics as diverse as AIDS, genocide, female circumcision, organised religion and Starbucks is commendable simply for its bravery. However, whilst it is religious satire that ultimately underpins the show, the sophistication of the writing allows the Church of the Latter Day Saints to slowly unravel itself through its own inconsistencies. There is no need for savagery on the part of the writers, since all the ammunition is provided by the Mormon Church itself. In the song ‘I Believe’, in which the disillusioned Elder Price reaffirms his faith, he sings without irony (although it is, of course, evidently risible to the audience): ‘I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well. I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri,’ before concluding that, ‘a Mormon just believes’.
At times, the show shocks even those without a faith in its willingness to slay sacred cows; it is these moments that are most exciting and also the most amusing. Perhaps the highlight of the show, if it were possible to select one moment from the plethora of contenders, is the song ‘Man Up’. Realising that the duty to convert the Ugandan people falls on him, Elder Cunningham seeks religious precedent for his work: ‘What did Jesus do when they sentenced him to die? Did he try to run away, did he just break down and cry? No, Jesus dug down deep, knowing what he had to do. When faced with his own death, Jesus knew that he had to… man up!’
Whilst the show chooses an easy target in the Mormon faith, what is actually being explored is a far wider criticism of organised religion. For those who leave the theatre thinking that their own faith is strengthened by the ridiculous nature of the Mormon religious, the point of the show has been largely missed. Indeed, the ridiculous doctrines that surround the Church of the Latter Day Saints are only one remove from those of the Abrahamic orthodoxies. However, the gravity of the satire would mean nothing if this show actually descended into preaching; the success of The Book of Mormon rests on its humour. It is hard to state just how amusing the show is, but the sustained audience laughter throughout is some indication. No words can adequately capture the atmosphere inside the theatre: perhaps it is a true case in which seeing is believing.
W. J. Humphries