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Theatre review: The Book of Mormon merely flirts with blasphemy but there is something very winning about it

Prince of Wales Theatre, London

The Book Of Mormon penned by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame and Robert (Avenue Q) Lopez, fetches up in the West End with the garland/albatross of 9 Tony Awards round its neck and the kind of raves that suggest that certain New York critics were surreptitiously injected with a hyperbole-drug on the way in. It also comes with the titillating reputation for having more than a few blasphemy issues. So does it live up to the hype?

Could anything? Put it this way. I absolutely loved it – albeit slightly guiltily. Directed with terrific zap and zestful precision by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, the show thwacks together a caricature-tendentious view of modern Mormon masculinity with a calculatedly outrageous Lion King-skewed view of Africa. It begins with preternatural comic efficiency. A line-up of beamingly brainwashed-seeming Mormon men (think squeaky-clean flight attendants with added Faith) strut their stuff, with their sawing elbows nearing sky-level in demented officiousness.

The normal rubric for chorines is “tits’n’teeth, dear”. Here, it’s a case of tits’n’tome - in an introductory book-brandishing rondelay of a number that would crowd your average Avon Lady off the face of the Western Hemisphere, Abs pressed tightly against his white short-sleeved shirt and with a dollop of quiff that anything with a pulse would want to muss, Gavin Creel is brilliantly engaging (and stout of voice) as Elder Price, whose ambitions for Latter-Day Sainthood go a trifle off-piste when he is despatched Uganda rather than Orlando, Florida by the mission. Inside leg-measurement roughly half the size of his waist and fully and inarguably friend-free, Jared Gertner is totally adorable as his gatheringly not-so-forlorn sidekick.

The premise of the show is that religion is just the continuation of showbiz by other means. It’s a view that can be applied more readily to televangelism than to, say, the patient, collectively questing silence of a Quaker meeting. But the idea pays dividends at certain points in the piece, as when the Mormon team in Uganda sing a frenetically fusspot ditty about the repression of instincts (in their case very gay). Stephen Ashfield is hilarious as the team-leader whose maniacal cheeriness of surface is given to sudden surges of raw camp as the Lord and the current take him. 

You may think that all this is about to obey the law of diminishing returns, but there is a seriously inspired twist. Spoiler alert: the show pulls off an absolutely uproarious satire of the “revealed” nature of revealed religion. The spoofs of Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s Muhammed, encountering the angel and receiving the plates, suffer, to my mind, from sophomoric overkill. The genuinely inspired gambit is this: the tubby failure of a sidekick (who has never actually read the Book of Mormon) suddenly realises that he can up the baptism-quotient in Uganda if he just improvises the founding myth, throwing in details from other legends such as Star Wars and The Hobbit. The sequence where the natives put on a masque, based on these misapprehensions, for the visiting party of Mormon inspectors is, truly, one of the funniest things I have ever seen.

Is the show touristic? Does it merely flirt with blasphemy? Oh, you bet. But there is also something very winning about its spirit. True, it does not take any really daring risks. It’s not nearly as intrepid as Jerry Springer: the Opera. Mitt Romney (devoted Mormon) was never going to think that to be seen entering or exiting the show was a wondrous photo-opportunity during his recent failed Presidential bid. This musical is not the stuff of demonstrations. Equally, some might think that it proves yet again that the Broadway tuner can be accused of many things but a lack of self-esteem or territorial aggrandisement is not among them.

But songs, though not especially memorable, have bounce and bite and colour. And the spirit of the piece is tremendously attractive. The makers claim that they have an equal opportunities policy in relation to offence. That could read as an avowal that they have no convictions to have the courage of. But that is not not how it feels.