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 End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear