You know that thing when there is a huge crackle of anticipation in a theatre before it starts? You can find it in abundance at the moment at the Prince of Wales where The Book of Mormon is currently previewing. We saw the first Saturday matinee preview, so I guess there may still be some tweaks ahead, but to be honest I couldn’t see anything that needed tweaking.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s the first time I’ve been to the Prince of Wales in many years and I was absolutely stunned at how beautifully it has been renovated. It was originally built in 1937 and has had a full Art Deco makeover. The bar at the back of the stalls is sensibly massive, and how pleasing it is to see it fully staffed with at least six hard-working people. The toilet provision is much more plentiful than you’d find in the average theatre. And the prices of drinks and merchandise were, I thought, remarkably reasonable. Every single member of staff that we talked to was jolly, friendly, polite and helpful. What a fantastically well-run theatre!
The Book of Mormon comes to London with a happy history already behind it, having collected no fewer than nine Tony awards in New York. Written by the irreverent team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of South Park fame, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, it’s not hard to predict the level of humour and zaniness that will fill the theatre. If anything, it’s far funnier than I expected, because it has none – well, very little – of the grotesqueness of South Park and the stereotypes depicted are actually rather endearing. It’s also less cruel than I had expected, and it has a rewardingly happy ending – all apart from the poor guy who gets shot halfway through. To say it’s irreverent is an understatement; and it is chock-full of subject matter that many people could find extremely offensive; but it is all done with a lightness of touch so that your only reaction is to laugh your socks off; and anything else that isn’t tied down. This really is intensive care funny. Imagine a cleaner-cut version of Jerry Springer The Opera and you’re somewhere in the right area. It goes without saying that it’s shamelessly non-PC; and it’s superbly staged throughout with great sets, lighting and costumes.
If you don’t want to know the story, skip this paragraph, although I’m only really giving you the introduction. Elders are getting paired off to go and spread the word of Mormon on doorsteps around the world. Our hero (or is he?) Elder Price is looking forward to partnering a regular guy just like himself and hitting the joyous streets of Orlando; instead he is paired off with our other hero (or is he?) Elder Cunningham, a needy nerdy fantasist with no mates, and they’re sent to Uganda. Things don’t go entirely to plan – there are no doorbells on the mud huts for one thing – and our heroes join the other Elders already in town in completely failing to make any conversions. But things turn around… and a bizarre success story awaits. I won’t tell you any more as I don’t want to ruin it for you.
If laughter is the best policy, making tickets available for this show on the National Health would be top of every party’s manifesto. Within ten seconds of curtain up I started laughing, and I barely stopped for the next two and a half hours – excepting the interval, where I stopped laughing long enough to enjoy a Pinot Grigio. After you’ve experienced the first number, “Hello!” you’ll find that you never, ever say the word “hello” again with the same intonation as before. There’s only one way to say it – bright eyed and bushy tailed and with the enthusiasm of a zealot door to door salesman. What the show does brilliantly is to lampoon the more ridiculous ideas of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (every religion has some ridiculous ideas) and make you the audience member step back and ask yourself, “looking at this objectively, could you really believe in all this?” It also shows how religions can get created and develop, and even how a new prophet can be realised. So actually, through the method of humour, it makes some pretty hard-hitting points about the nature of religion.
The cast are a complete joy from start to finish. Gavin Creel, who was great when we saw him in the revival of Hair a couple of years ago, plays Elder Price and he looks absolutely perfect for it – you can’t imagine anyone more bright, clean, and shiny for the role. Mr Creel has a great stage presence and a superb singing voice; he reminds me a little of what a showbiz Greg Rusedski would look like. He also takes Casey Nicholaw’s already amusing and quirky choreography and makes a terrific meal out of it – dancing incredibly athletically and show-offishly, slightly mad dad style, thereby making him look just a little more ridiculous. Elder Price is a bit of a louse in many respects, but because Mr Creel is so likeable on stage you still warm to the character despite his faults.
Likeable in a completely different way is the hopeless Elder Cunningham, played hilariously by Jared Gertner, a little mop-head of neuroses who just wants to be loved, and is thrilled to be best-buddied with the charismatic Elder Price. With his super comic timing and fantastic facial expressions it’s a performance of comedy genius. At odds with his appearance, Mr Gertner is nevertheless a fantastic song-and-dance man which really shines through his performance. Together with Mr Creel their partnership is the classic “Odd Couple”, straight guy/comic guy and it works brilliantly.
There’s also a fantastic performance from Stephen Ashfield as Elder McKinley, head of the Ugandan mission. The missionaries already there have a simple way of coping with life’s difficulties and any internal torments they might have – they just switch it off, like a light, and there’s a brilliant song to illustrate it. Mr Ashfield’s portrayal of a guy occasionally drifting into his natural gayness and then switching it back off again is just hilarious, and he really shines in the Broadway-style big numbers. There’s also an incredible coup de theatre in “Turn it off” when the lights go out – I don’t know how they do it, but it takes your breath away. The huge roar of appreciation at curtain call for Mr Ashfield said it all.
Alexia Khadime plays Nabulungi, the village girl who decides there might be something in this Mormonism. She gives a stunning, tender performance, sings with heart and clarity and very nicely underplays the comedy of her role. She’s quite heart-melting too. Chris Jarman, who was excellent in last year’s Comedy of Errors, is terrific as the ogre General who rules the area with an iron fist and instruments of torture. His hilarious appearance in the final scene completely stops the show. And I really liked Tyrone Huntley, who was very funny in the UK tour of Sister Act, as the hopeless Doctor with an embarrassing medical problem. I’ll stop mentioning cast members now, but they were all absolutely first class.
This ought to run for years and years. If you’re not easily offended, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly. I do hope we get to see it again some time. One of the funniest shows I have ever seen – possibly the funniest. A must-see.