It was Mormon than enough: Book of Mormon at Palace Theatre, Manchester
There is nothing I want more in the world right now than one of the pyjama suits worn in ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’. The red, Grinch-like, pointy-toed costumes look cosy as well as fashionable. This dance number was accompanied by some of the most evil people from throughout history performing sex acts on each other in the fiery depths of hell. This image pretty much sums up Book of Mormon; it’s not the kind of show you want to watch with your parents.
The play follows two Mormon men, the self-absorbed Elder Price (Kevin Clay), and his bumbling buddy, Elder Cunningham (Jacob Yarlett), who are sent from Salt Lake City to an underdeveloped village in Uganda, where it’s their job to teach the words of their holy books and convert as many people as possible to the Mormon faith. Things don’t go smoothly though, as the people of the village struggle to find religious justification for their suffering from hunger and disease. On top of this, a warlord general arrives and threatens the safety of the community. With all this to contend with, Cunningham begins to bend the truth a little to try and bring faith to the village…
Various newspapers and critics have described the award-winning production as “the best two hours of your life”, “not just as funny as hell, its funnier”, and “so fucking good it makes me angry”. It’s safe to say that I had very high hopes. But the generic, samey songs didn’t evoke rapturous enjoyment in me or my party. The singing was beautifully executed and I can’t fault it at all; the actors were clearly very talented. But it was the songs themselves which were a let-down: they weren’t catchy and felt like monotonous filler numbers. I found myself wondering how the actors were able to differentiate the songs they were singing. I couldn’t hum the tune to a single one of the songs from Book of Mormon, so the music would be the first of many disappointments.
Another problem was the gratuitously crude themes and foul language which were exploited to an unnecessary extent. Although the play was generally humorous, a lot of the laughing from the audience felt like nervous laughter in response to jokes about AIDS, FGM, rape, bestiality, and other inappropriate topics. They felt like forced jokes included just for the hell of it. I understand that Book of Mormon is supposed to be controversial and is supposed to provoke a reaction, but it was taken too far and made light of serious social issues.
The play’s satirical approach uses humour to ridicule prejudices surrounding religion and race. This could have served to genuinely challenge negative racial representation and religious delusion, rather than just having characters shout “I have AIDS!” throughout the play. Theatre is such a powerful platform. I can see how Book of Mormon attempted to raise these discussions, but it wasn’t done well, and instead they were used for cheap, easy laughs.
Furthermore, the climax of the play promised a satisfying ending, all tied up in a bow, but didn’t deliver. There was more that needed to be said, more we needed to know about the characters and their wavering faith, the political situation in Uganda, and the future of the village— so much was left unanswered. Ending the play with the same song as the beginning only reminded the audience of how little had really been concluded. It felt unfinished, leaving unknown endings to the stories of its countless characters.
However, the show was absolutely stolen by Johnathan Tweedie, who played the closeted mission president. His delightful mannerisms, sexy burlesque moves, and suppressed passions were genuinely funny and he was the stand-out of the entire performance. I would give him an A* for his commitment to his character, and a pat on the back to his campy Mormon entourage.
Overall, Book of Mormon doesn’t receive excellent rating from me. Honestly, I don’t understand the hype that has buzzed around this play since its debut in 2011. I can only conclude that, in this play, nothing is sacred.