Theatre Royal Concert Hall Nottingham – until Saturday 10th September 2022
Reviewed by Amarjeet Singh
First staged in 2011, The Book of Mormon was created by the dynamic and devilish minds behind South Park. It is a sardonic examination of the beliefs and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I believe, the western worlds attitude towards developing countries as a whole.
The multi award winning musical follows a pair of ill-matched Latter-day Saint missionaries, Elders Price and Cunningham, as they attempt to preach the faith of the Church to the inhabitants of a remote Ugandan village. The earnest young men are challenged by the lack of interest from the locals, who are distracted by more pressing issues such as HIV/AIDS, famine, female genital mutilation, and oppression by the local warlord. The locals cannot see how these ‘teachings’ can solve their practical issues and don’t believe God can help at all.
Uganda was not the first choice of preaching base for the religious duo. Elder Price dreamed of doing ‘Great things’ in Orlando Florida. Mainly driven by a desire to lead and be a leader he is horrified to be partnered with Elder Cunningham, an insecure, fantasist who just wants to be liked.
Cunningham’s years of being ridiculed and side-lined have given him lesser expectations of his chances of success on the missionary trail, but they have also given him more of the inner resources needed to cope with the situation he finds himself in, and he embraces the mission. There is also a childlike joy and wonder to his approach which is infectious. Price, by contrast, has a sense of entitlement. The golden child, over achiever becomes dismayed at his current predicament and his world quickly crumbles around him.
Unable to covert the villagers to the ways of the church, experiencing some traumatic events and not being able to ‘Turn it off’ like his fellow missionaries, Elder Price throws in the towel and attempts to leave. Abandoned and afraid, Elder Cunningham takes up the reigns. Realising that the Book of Mormon has little relevance to the problems of the locals, he decides to adapt the story to suit their predicaments, embellishing it with ideas of his own, gleaned from a lifetime of fantasy and fiction. It piques the villager’s interests and convinces them to join the movement.
Overjoyed at the success rate of the conversion, the Mormon president wants to visit the village and what ensues is truly incredible.
The Book of Mormon is a superb piece of satirical showmanship. It’s ridiculously crude, offensive, shocking, glitzy and riotously funny. But if you look beyond its base level and catchy tunes you will see how clever this show is. The portrayal of the Ugandans is relentlessly stereotypical, serving as a vehicle for the show’s main targets: western arrogance, racism, colonialism and the white saviour complex. The play shines a spotlight on western arrogance, prods and pokes at the ludicrous reality of misguided sanctified behaviours and attitudes and is immensely gratifying to watch as it all unfolds, and we are left questioning our entitlements and political correctness.
Scott Pask’s set design is comical, creative and colourful, especially the Ugandan slums and the Mormon Hell dream. Along with Ann Roth’s stunning costume design, these add to the script and music to give the audience an immersive evening’s entertainment.
The cast and ensemble are equally excellent, particularly Nabulungi, played charmingly by the sweet-voiced Aviva Tulley, the fierce and feisty female protagonist who faces her fears and steps into the unknown. Also, Elder Cunningham played by Conner Peirson, the lovely, adorable and energetic Mormon with an overactive imagination and Elder Price played by Robert Colvin, the charming, pomp, straightlaced character that will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. However, the absolute star of the show was Jordan Lee Davies who played the suppressed, sexually frustrated and very wonderfully gay Elder McKinley. Every song had the audience entertained but it was during the fifth song, ‘Turn it off’, with humorous lyrics joking about the suppression of feelings as a “nifty little Mormon trick”, that proved just how clever this show and its music was. I offer no spoiler, but when Elder McKinley tap danced off the stage the audience roared with laughter and were still scratching their heads at how the missionaries pulled of (or on) the last trick.
The musical may appear to mock religious credulity, but it doesn’t question the need for belief. As Elder Price sings towards the end of the show, ‘It’s just a bunch of made-up stuff, but it points to something bigger’. We just need to decide which parts are the made-up bits. As critical thinkers, we can decide. Either way I hope you decide to see The Book of Mormon. It’s like nothing you have seen before, a true revelation.