Reviewed: The Book of Mormon

Not so salty.

The Book of Mormon
Prince of Wales, London W1

To say word of mouth, or word of Twitter, ensured The Book of Mormon’s critic-proof transition from Broadway to London does not acknowledge Britain’s willingness to be seduced. The day the first, mixed, reviews came out, £2m-worth more tickets were sold to theatregoers who have never once been bothered by a Mormon on their doorstep. London remains in awe of US pop culture, and when we find an example that is anti- God, politically incorrect and wildly popular among Americans, hope floods into hearts unmoved by Obama’s re-election. It’s like 9/11 all over again: we are all Americans now.

As my attempted joke demonstrates, bad taste is easy, being funny hard and I am simply not sure how funny this musical, although effectively, if frugally, staged, boisterously acted and slickly choreographed, actually is. It is certainly bad taste.

A parody of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata” makes comedy out of Aids and female genital mutilation. Its catchy title/ chorus “Hasa Diga Eebowai” turns out to translate as “Fuck You God (Up the Bum)”, which is where the Book of Mormon ends up lodged in a preacher. One of the best numbers, “Switch it Off”, a song about blacking out inconvenient feelings, includes as an example a sister dying of cancer.

For a colonist nation, the racist, dareto- be-offended jokes against Africa require a particularly stiff upper lip. The Uganda to which our two missionary heroes, Elder Price (Gavin Creel), a clean-cut true-believer, and Elder Cunningham (the excellent Jared Gertner), a curly-haired nerd there to find a buddy, are sent is peopled by gullible idiots in thrall to a homicidal warlord, General Butt Fucking Naked.

The African love interest (Alexia Khadime) is described as being “such a hot shade of black she is like a latte” and her conversion to Mormonism is explicitly compared to a sexual conquest. At the end, the black Africans who have bought Cunningham’s improvised brand of sci-fi Mormonism – just as Utah did, we infer, Joseph Smith’s original version – tell the elders that they knew all along religion was but a useful metaphor. The effect is condescending.

It is clear at this point that someone has lost their nerve. The musical’s get-out-of-jail card, its raucous blasphemy, has been traded in for a feel-good moment. But the sentimentality might even be welcome if hilarity had built through the evening. But the songs, faint parodies of not particularly memorable show tunes (“Tomorrow” from Annie is becomes “Tomorrow is a Latter Day”), go on too long. The dancing fails to get past the insight that musicals are a bit gay and the big set pieces, such as Elder Price’s malarial decent into hell, underwhelm.

I should have been on the floor laughing or about to walk out; instead throughout I smiled indulgently, an atheist trying not to feel guilty at watching a soft target, so placid it has taken ads in the programme, being bullied. Life of Brian, Jerry Springer, the Opera and that off-colour masterpiece The Producers, in contrast, induced something ecstatic and freeing. At curtain call the writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose creations South Park and Team America I admire, took a modest bow. They looked a little shamefaced, as if a pleasing bog-wall graffito had somehow ended up in the Tate.

The touring cast of The Book of Mormon.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain