The Book of Mormon has some awful jokes but ultimately succeeds because of its affection for its subject
A guilty pleasure: Gavin Creel (centre) as Elder Price in “The Book of Mormon”
The Book of Mormon has descended on the West End with peerless publicity for a Broadway musical transfer, namely that it is spectacularly rude, very funny and completely unlike anything else on the British stage. It amply lives up to the billing.
A genetically-modified concoction of pantomime, parody, gospel music and divinity play put together by the founders of the dyspeptic TV cartoon South Park and composers of the Broadway hit Avenue Q, this does for Mormonism what Life of Brian did for Christianity, but with a lot more affection disguised beneath cheery mockery.
Gavin Creel is Elder Price, the incarnation of puffed-up self-believer in a straight line of descent from Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Jared Gertner co-stars as the comically sweaty Elder Cunningham in Klutz-mode reminiscent of Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters and Little Shop of Horrors. Off the luckless duo set to preach the teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in a conflict-torn village in Uganda, where Elder Cunningham adapts the golden tablets rather freely to win over desperate villagers and impress his love-interest Nabulungi (Alexia Khadime).
The singing, dancing and general brio rarely falter. Khadime possesses an earthy chest voice loud enough to echo from the Prince of Wales Theatre in Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace: just one proof among many that this Sonia Friedman production has succeeded in weaving together the talents of the West End and Broadway into a slick, united, joyous cast.
With songs that take on the repressions of the Latter-Day Saints (“Switch it off” deals with inconvenient homosexual urges), and lines like “My sister was a dancer / Till she got cancer,” guilty pleasure is the essence of The Book of Mormon. It has some frankly awful jokes about Aids, cliterodectomy and much worse, but this is humour thriving on transgression and the tantalising line between a belly-laugh and a wince. Judgment and a benevolent outlook save it from mere condescension. Besides laughing at the absurdities of the Mormon creed, we get a good poke at self-regarding do-gooders of all stripes: “I am Africa! / Just like Bono / I am Nelson Mandela’s tears,” sings one of the missionaries.
If South Park sniggers at modern America, The Book of Mormon is more warm-hearted, weaving unlikely redemption out of a send-up of credulity. Leaps of faith, it tells us, are absurd commitments. That is no reason not to make them. The only downside is that the West End’s other musicals look pallid by comparison.
A more sedate evening is on offer round the corner at the Gielgud, where Peter Morgan’s The Audience reprises Helen Miren’s spookily fine portrayal of the Queen in the film drama, in which Her Majesty did battle with Tony Blair’s government in the wake of Diana’s death. In this sequel to Morgan’s monarchical study, we see HRH through the prism of her weekly audiences with prime ministers from Winston Churchill to David Cameron.
The result, directed by Stephen Daldry, is assured and the critics have largely lapped it up. It begins with an elderly Churchill (Edward Fox a late substitute for an indisposed Robert Hardy), hectoring a young Queen who speaks Enid Blyton English but already possesses sharpness and determination.
Both the heroine and the play get into their stride when she encounters Harold Wilson (an artfully rumpled Richard McCabe), who finds chilly Balmoral a trial and teases her for her eccentric Hanoverian heritage, while impressing her with his meritocratic clout. Part of Mirren’s success in the role is her ability to mould her posture as well as her features into an uncanny resemblance of a woman whom so many have tried unsuccessfully to capture. The Queen is represented as a stoic, unknowable figure, a touch on the obsessive-compulsive side when it comes to shoes and pens and wedded to a duty which, the play suggests, must feel like a chore without being revealed to be such.
Alas, The Audience is a lot less fine-feeling when it comes to politics. John Major (Paul Ritter) is an amusing caricature who insists that he “only ever wanted to be ordinary”, inviting the glorious reply, “In what way do you feel you have failed in this ambition?” But what a misunderstanding of an ambitious man who craved control and was a spiky, difficult leader. It gets worse as we rewind to Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne), portrayed as a termagant whose quarrel with the Palace over South African sanctions is driven solely by unfeeling greed and an eye for her offspring’s commercial opportunities. The infamous “no such thing as society” comments get predictably dim treatment, a waste of Gwynne’s elegant steeliness. It’s a reminder that while the monarchy has moved on, British political drama remains firmly stuck in the 1970s.
At the refurbished Old Vic in Bristol, Tom Morris, one of the most refreshing directors on the block, offers collaboration with Cape Town’s Handspring Puppet Company, reprising a partnership which brought us the National’s palpable hit, War Horse. This time, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is adapted and to be charitable, it’s half a success.
One of the confusions is the sheer profusion of actors, dolls and other contraptions on stage. There are classical masks, puppets of various sizes, an animist Puck conjured up by three actors crouching behind bits of kitchenware, and Bottom-as-ass suspended on an elaborate trolley. While admiring the technical mastery, you do find yourself wondering whether it is worth all the bother. The production fizzes with intellectual ambition, but an able cast of actors is upstaged by things on strings and bits of wood. Morris says he wants to do Shakespeare without puppets next. Good call.