Review – The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre, 2nd March 2013

Book of MormonYou 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.

Gavin CreelBut 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!

Jared GertnerThe 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.

Stephen AshfieldIf 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.

Alexia KhadimeLikeable 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.

Chris JarmanThere’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.

Tyrone HuntleyAlexia 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.

Review – Comedy of Errors, National Theatre, Olivier Auditorium, 4th February 2012

Comedy of ErrorsI’d heard two rather sniffy comments about this production of Comedy of Errors before seeing it – one was that as it starred Lenny Henry it was appealing only to people who liked him off the telly; and the other was that the first scene is immensely tedious in its wordy scene-setting. Well I’m happy to report that I think both comments are a load of old codswallop.

Let’s start with that second comment. Yes, it’s an early play and yes, Egeon’s opening speech is long and somewhat tortuous and maybe a more mature Shakespeare would have done it differently. Joseph MydellBut he didn’t so we have to put up with it. Moreover, if you don’t follow all the details of Egeon’s speech you haven’t got a clue as to the why and the wherefore of the following two hours, so there’s no option to cut it. Enter a fantastic set, designed by Bunny Christie. When the play starts it depicts tall tenements in a shady part of town, maybe based on a London/Essex hybrid, where the brutal treatment of Egeon can take place without raising an eyebrow. But when Egeon starts to tell his story, the set splits in two and becomes the tall ship on the raging sea, and mime characters act out Egeon’s tale as it unfolds. I think this is the fourth production of Comedy of Errors I have seen and this story telling in the opening scene has never been so lucidly achieved.

Lenny HenryAnd back to the first comment, if TV stars like Lenny Henry attract a new audience to Shakespeare on stage, isn’t that a good thing? I don’t get the pomposity that criticises him for it. Now of course, if he couldn’t act, and he hammed it up something dreadful, and it was an embarrassment, then they might have a point. But he doesn’t. He acts it completely with conviction and within a few lines you forget that you’re not watching a “legitimate” actor. And let’s not forget – Comedy of Errors is hardly Hamlet.

Lucian Msamati I would say that his Antipholus of Syracuse is a little more violent than others I have seen. Normally A. of S. is depicted as rather a sophisticated or isolated type – sometimes foppish even. This Antipholus isn’t pretending to give his Dromio a biff round the ears, he attacks him head on. No wonder Dromio of Syracuse gets a bit alarmed by him. But then this Comedy of Errors is set in a rather seedy urban underworld; the Duke, the Officer and the Merchants are definitely Not To Be Trusted. It’s dog eat dog out there.

Chris JarmanBut as a comedy duo, they are terrific. Mr Henry does a marvellous line in bewildered looks as everyone in Ephesus appears to know who he is, from edging anxiously around the snooker table while Adriana is insisting on his return home, to emerging sheepishly onto the bedroom balcony clad only in a towel, after they have shared conjugals. He is matched – possibly bettered – by the splendid Lucian Msamati who was brilliant when we last saw him in Clybourne Park, as Dromio of Syracuse, whose exasperations are genuinely funny and who makes that potentially intractable verse come alive.

Daniel PoyserYou have to make the two Antipholi come across as very different characters, so Chris Jarman’s equally convincing Antipholus of Ephesus is a wide boy who expects everything to go his way and his embarrassment at not being let into his house is delightful. The final scene, when the brothers are reunited and go into the house together, is heartwarmingly funny. Messrs Henry and Jarman grin boyishly like Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears and it’s an irresistably endearing moment. Dromio of Ephesus, Daniel Poyser, is suitably a little more worldly wise than his Syracusian counterpart, but then again he has been coping with Luce all these years.

Amit ShahOther excellent supporting performances come from Amit Shah as Angelo the goldsmith, who turns from being a meek and mild tradesman to a spitting cauldron of fury, Rene Zagger as the Second Merchant, portrayed with subtle mafia overtones, Rene Zagger Grace Thurgood’s alluring Courtesan who has many a knowing expression as she stirs the waters even further with demands over her ring, and Joseph Mydell’s dignified Egeon.

Grace ThurgoodBut I leave the best till last. Two gems of performances from Claudie Blakley as Adriana and Michelle Terry as her sister Luciana. Pacing, tormented, on her glamorous balcony at the Phoenix, immaculately realised in this constantly evolving set, the equally glamorous Ms Blakley brings genuine anxiety and worry to the role of Adriana. Straight out of The Only Way Is Ephesus, and clearly someone who knows what she wants and is used to getting it, she brings out all the humour of an Estuary woman thwarted; whilst Ms Terry’s Luciana, in what must be one of the least politically correct roles in regular performance, affirms that a man is master of his liberty in a hilarious faltering, Claudie Blakleythinking it out one-syllable-at-a-time, manner. By the time Adriana has leapt onto the snooker table – by the way, none of the actors can play snooker for toffee – they are so in their stride and commanding the stage that there is no doubt that this is their show. And, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, Claudie Blakley has a dress to die for. In the same way that Messrs Henry and Msamati make a brilliant comedy duo, these two are a perfect match throughout and their scenes are pure joy.

Michelle TerryBut probably the best aspect of this production is that the story-telling element is so clear. From Egeon’s opening speech, to the comings-and-goings with chains and rings and purses and what have you, all the elements that drive the story along are crystal clear. Sometimes some of the meaning can get lost in the Shakespearean verse but this production avoids that pitfall perfectly. Mrs C confessed that this was the first time she realised that the Abbess was Egeon’s wife, and she’s seen it three times before. Added to all this, there’s a real ambulance, Turkish buskers playing ironic pop tunes, and an amazingly versatile set, all contributing to a really enjoyable and lovingly done production. Highly recommended.