Book of Mormon (West End Production)


Book of Mormon is not bad, but it is nothing like good enough to justify its hype. Granted, hype is an amorphous construction that sits somewhat outside an artwork, and a given piece isn’t quite legitimately answerable to its reception. Nevertheless, it’s very difficult to go into this musical unaware of the kind of commercial enterprise it is.

Even inside the venue, the degree and nature of Mormon’s success are impossible to escape. The building was crowded with unusually over-dressed people wearing giant shoes, like they’d come to a club or their proms, tottering about slowly. The show started late, in part because people didn’t have access to shared knowledge about how to move in a space like this and in part because they didn’t take final calls seriously. The tourist-heavy, US-weighted (American accent-peppered) crowd displayed different audience behaviours than what you’d see from the attendees of a shorter-running production selling largely to a theatrically-experienced British public. My partner and I had wanted to see Mormon primarily because it was such a big-ticket item, and so raved about. Having seen it, I feel it’s big with people who do not Theatre much, and that that’s actually part of the mechanic of its appeal.

This competent but not exceptional performance got a standing ovation. I used to watch bullfights in Seville. That is a tough crowd. It’s a major arena, one of the big three, and the Sevillanos do not, as a rule, award trophies. Then one day I went to this tiny town with a podunk ring for some novilladas—so novice fights. And these rural spectators could not stop giving out trophies. That is what crowds for Tourist Musicals are like: a collection of bb David Copperfields who act as though every play is the BEST PLAY, by virtue of existing on a stage. (I’m talking about the really sweet bit where David thinks a production of Julius Caesar is the best thing to ever have happened to humans and Steerforth is like oh honey, it seriously blew, but bless your little face.)

Several factors go into making up this sort of house. It has to do with a play’s buzz, its run-length, its subject matter, the amount of Pagentry involved, the venue (that venue’s size) and the (exorbitant, Luxury-marketed) ticket price. I would almost avoid big shows or good (expensive) Friday-night seats at something like Les Miz because the stalls will be: fucking full of out-of-towners.

Yes, I’m being a giant snob about this, and yes you can go and enjoy theatre if you don’t go often or live somewhere with a lot of theatre, etc. I’m from rural (well, it was at the time, now the town’s really grown up) Missouri, so like, I had a learning curve myself, and it’s also to naïve to suggest Londoners can’t be awful (we can) or that there is a Singular Right Way to Theatre (there isn’t, and public behaviour arguments are often dispatched to truly gross ends, like policing black enthusiasm in theatrical spaces). But let’s not pretend the atmosphere of a house doesn’t affect your reception of a performance, and that entire character of theatre for tourists isn’t a different enterprise from something like Curious Incident, which can attract tourists but is not built expressly to do so.

A friend wondered why Americans would go see Book of Mormon in London. I think Americans from an area without a big theatre community often like to get in that combo-vacation: the attractions of another country blend with the attractions of any large urban area (‘oh, we can go to Ikea while we’re there!!’ is, for example, a real thing I have said to real relatives). Plus the West End can have better availability than Broadway, and the prices vary from ‘cheaper than Broadway’ to ‘ridiculously cheaper than Broadway’. If you’re going with a group—flying from say, St. Louis, then coming to London for a show—even with plane fare, you might find going to London cheaper than trying to see a blockbuster show in New York. For example I guarantee you US people will come see Hamilton here, especially with Lin Manuel Miranda transferring. (Resold, a Hamilton ticket is currently running $800, apparently.)

With all that throat-clearing out of the way, and with me having exposed myself as an awful snob who doesn’t want to see Thriller Live with your Auntie Leslie from Versailles, MO (pron. Ver-sails) on any account, let’s talk about the musical.

A small note: I initially suspected the set-painter to have been a rogue Canadian, because a Tim Hortons was depicted in Salt Lake City. But now I learn those snow-encrusted bastards are making inroads south, to the tune of 650 US restaurants in the last years! I have never before suspected this threat, and now see that we must act to prevent the White Menace from consuming our sweet native franchises.

The story follows two young American Mormon men going out on their two-year mission journey. They’re rather surprised to learn they’re being dispatched to Uganda, a country about which they know nothing. An awkward geek, Arnold, is paired with Kevin, the flower of Mormon youth. Kevin is an entertainingly self-obsessed boy whose messianic conviction of his own virtue and importance has always chimed perfectly with his community and its faith.

The characterization and music alike both have some Moments, but aren’t great. I had some laughs, but not as many as I might have expected, and now, with a few days’ distance, I can remember almost nothing I found particularly great? Essentially this is, as you might expect from the creators, South Park humour and plotting: that level of liberal thinking, that scatological quality, that irreverence that actually doesn’t challenge much, that ‘or did I just blow your mind’ fauxfundity. The acting was very good, but the parts didn’t necessarily ask the world of the performers. The staging was expensive, but I’m not sure it was particularly good as such. Mormon felt—like a super-glossy version of a random Fringe musical. That level of writing skill, etc. Which is fine, but the production doesn’t really scream to be brought to the West End and have tons of cash heaped on it.

Obviously, this musical’s racist as hell. Like, it pushes through that so you think it’s not and then enters back into it, leaving none of the fundamental underlying assumptions unchallenged. Yes, the show does think it’s dumb that white Americans have simplistic, entertainment-based narratives about Africa and want to make sweeping changes there with little idea of the factors involved in the continent’s issues (or even much idea of the size and diversity of said continent, and thus the diversity of its issues). The song “We Are Africa” is kind of great for evoking and mocking these assumptions.

But the musical, about missionaries introducing faith to a beleaguered village, never says a word about the role white people and missionary drives, and colonialism more generally, have played in creating this current depressing state of affairs. So when belief, in an admittedly rather sophisticated manoeuvre, is presented as a possible social good in and of itself at the musical’s conclusion, that feels amnesiac. Belief caused this: belief is going to fix it as well? Mormon never once asks about the faith, or lack thereof, of the inhabitants—we’re shown folk beliefs born of desperation, but never the religion Mormonism is supposed to displace. The village is a tabula rasa.

Mormon is fundamentally the story of its white characters, with the black cast used as backdrop. And it’s funny when done consciously in “We Are Africa”, which features awkwardly smiling Africans on the periphery, silent, and white men making tits of themselves centre stage. But it’s less funny when the entire plot mechanic is reliant on this effect. A warlord shoots a villager, and we zero in on how worried this makes Kevin, and then forget even that trauma quickly. No one in the village grieves their friend, who ultimately exists to be a comic bloodstain on Kevin’s shirt (and then to be forgotten when the tempo picks up and Kevin changes).

Yes the black characters deservedly mock the Americans’ prissiness, earnestness and cluelessness, but it’s all a bit Heart of Darkness, isn’t it? This is never their story. Mormon’s not quite minstrelsy, but there are times I felt uncomfortably conscious of that vibe. Are we laughing with the characters who have real problems these newcomers blithely think they can solve with bible study, or are we laughing at this stupid girl who doesn’t understand what ‘texting’ is? Can Nabulungi’s dimness be just her own, in a context where we’re told so little about her social situation? Can the dim white character/her love interest’s comedic inability to say her name right and disinterest in learning how to do so ever not be racist? Is the fundamental naïveté of these Africans okay because this is just a musical comedy, or a kind of creepy reflection of the degree to which the creators and appreciative audiences understand people in very different situations to their own to be thinking beings? And what does mocking American monolithic ideas of Africa actually do, when what we see in this musical is exactly that Elephant Graveyard out of Lion King (complete with the massive skeleton from Julie Taymor’s production’s set design) in village form and a floating, contextless clit-hating warlord?

In the end, via a transformation of the faith they’re peddling (largely Arnold’s limp, unfunny, nerd pop-culture reimagining, rather than the Ugandans’ making Mormonism something that works for them), the work of the missionaries is fundamentally successful. (To be honest, it felt like the warlord could and even logically should have gunned this village down in the climactic scene. Why did no one bother to clinch this climax?) So you don’t have to ask questions about Western complicity in this village being in this position in the first place or continuing Western involvement in Africa. You don’t even have to ask too many questions about Mormonism’s pros and cons. The mechanic of this show’s plot is, at its core, complacent. This is a production that aims to generate publicity-making Daily Mail outrage, and nothing more. It’s Urinetown’s failed ending, all over again.

I’m so sick of media that bungles its message via bad editing. It’s such a salvageable situation, if the problem’s thoroughly addressed early on. I think a musical shaped like this could have sold like this has, even if it had a more challenging core, and that that’s the difference between something that sells well in the moment and a long-sighted project that endures as a cultural artefact (and thus may ultimately make you more money—why does no one think about this when thinking about quality? Why are capitalists so bad at capitalism?).

Overall, (and I’ve not seen it since it came out, so could be misremembering) I thought South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had better jokes, more of a sense of its form and more heart. I’m not mad I saw this musical, though I am deeply uncomfortable with its thoughtless, white as hell delivery of what I suspect are well-intentioned politics. I would be mad if I hadn’t gotten in via lottery and thus gotten cheap seats.


Funny Girl (film) Review


After reviewing the West End production, have now watched the film Funny Girl. It will surprise no one to learn that Barbara Streisand was amazing. The part where Nicky asks Fanny to watch a poker game with no expression and she’s such a glorious failure! Fanny just dropping when she passes the curtain coming off stage, because she’s a talented performer but also a woman very worried about her marriage, is so good. Brice’s handling of the reporters after Nicky turns himself in is AMAZING. 100x more characters like this, please. Great singing, great comic presence, and great character acting on Barbara’s part. I am never surprised by her being a fucking pro.

What I am surprised by is how much better Nicky Arnstein works in this. Omar Sharif is always a deeply appealing performer (why Lawrence of Arabia didn’t retroactively become a problematic but fascinating major slash fandom, I cannot say, except for that fandom doesn’t work that way, more’s the pity). He plays the macho notes of Arnstein’s role with half a laugh, and seems to have altogether more personality than the stage version. In part Sharif works so well because he, like Fanny, is something of an outsider in this production. He’s a smooth, rich gentleman who also happens to be brown. There’s a story there, there are attendant intersectional privileges and disprivileges. It gives Nicky’s desire to maintain his power in this world in and of himself a kind of poignancy, a degree of comprehensibility. Nicky is, at present, an exotic foreign Somebody, but take away his cultivated air of prestige and he’s the Egyptian husband of a born-poor Jewish girl whose luck could turn (easily: this film ends in the inter-war period). With his personal vulnerability, situational positioning and good humor, Sharif makes this story a real romance between two well-drawn individuals, so that it can be a real tragedy when it falls apart.

The film is generally successful. I get more of a sense of Fanny as a performer here, too, and I’m glad her friend’s her friend now instead of pining for her. I really appreciate that Fanny’s mother no longer assigns her the blame for Nicky’s behaviour, and instead advises her not to throw money at the problem, but to talk it out, to support him as his wife via helping him figure out what he ought to do. Fanny’s failure to do this is a bit inexplicable in the film, but overall the logic of the cuts and additions manages the difficult feat of making a musical or play work like a film. If some of that comes at the expense of it feeling like a musical—oh well?

A movie very worth watching, and very worth working with and building off of if you intend to stage the musical.

King John



Why do people go to obscure Shakespeare? Generally they do want to see a good play, but I suspect that a lot of the audience for your Pericles or what have you is familiar with the more popular part of Shakespeare’s oeuvre and is curious to see the less popular titles staged—that a good deal of their pleasure in seeing it will derive from this form of satisfaction. Not quite completism, but not a totally disinterested desire to attend a play matching thus summary. Thus I’m ambivalent about this production of King John’s decision to commingle various playtexts to arrive at this script. Per an unusually decently written Telegraph review, director Trevor Nunn makes a “Barton-like decision to re-order and augment the text with other material, notably George Peele’s The Troublesome Reign of King John (what’s a source for the Bard is sauce for the director).” (I disagree with the review on almost all points and think very little of the publication, but given that London theatre criticism is on the whole so very, very bad at present, it is excitingly competent!)

Did I want to, as that write-up accuses Nunn of doing, tick King John off my list as a viewer? Well, frankly, yes. I wanted to experience a staged King John, and to be able to form an opinion on the play that I could make intellectual use of in other contexts. I see the extent to which this represents the commodification of an artwork, but I’m also either sympathetic to or realistic about that effect. Of course we want to see a given play because someone’s in it, because it’s by that company, because it’s the only Lorca we haven’t seen, the last time she’ll work with him, etc. etc. And of course that’s how art is marketed and received.

So does Nunn’s decision to sacrifice the extent to which this is ‘a King John’ for what he hoped would be a richer play experience sit well with me? But there again, how different is this from the ordinary work of ambitious staging (as per Wars of the Roses), which could shift scene order and excise glibly, which doubles and combines characters as a matter of course? Grand revisions aside, any staging whatever consists of making decisions about how a given line ought to be contextualized and performed. I can’t remember what fictional character it was who only liked to read sheet music because any orchestration would inevitably be imperfect, but that is the negative, not wholly inaccurate view of what you get when you ‘collapse’ a script into a singular interpretation. On the other hand, staging can be a script’s realization, its grand opening up, and can introduce a rich new gamut of possible readings. Nunn’s approach is, I think, ultimately appealing to me, standing as it does to create something complicated and fresh, even as I’m not necessarily convinced by the effect in this particular case. (John’s dream sequence, for example, did not work for me.) My loyalty is essentially with pieces rather than concepts. (Even as I am, nonetheless, still a little frustrated by not having ‘accomplished’ King John as such.)

This… is indeed, as you know coming in, a Problem Play. Though it wasn’t always thought of as one!

“In the Victorian era, King John was one of Shakespeare’s most frequently staged plays, in part because its spectacle and pageantry were congenial to Victorian audiences. King John, however, has decreased in popularity: it is now one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays and stagings of it are very rare.[23] It has been staged four times on Broadway, the last time in 1915.[24] It has also been staged five times from 1953 to 2014 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.[25]

Essentially, Fucking Victorians.

I can’t help but feel this play has no excuse to be as late as it is in Shakespeare’s development as a playwright. (Though looking at the end of Shakespeare’s career, man he was ready to retire.) Though there’s a good energy to John, at least in this production. It clips along well for the first half, and honestly at some points I thought—perhaps this isn’t a bad play? It had a lot of good lines, as you always expect (though in looking some up I’ve discovered not all of these are from Shakespeare’s version, so.). You can definitely see in John a thematic continuity with several of Shakespeare’s other plays—sometimes similar ideas, imagery and turns of phrase crop up. In that respect, perhaps Shakespeare needed to turn out some King Johns so he could work through the ideas that would show up in more developed forms in Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.

While the stage business of the history play goes on apace, on the lesser end of the Shakespearean history play spectrum but generally fine, the Bastard (Howard Charles) emerges as an engrossing, morally ambivalent key POV figure. He always seems liable to do some great evil or to take his father’s throne from his uncle—a threat that, curiously, usurping John never seems to fear. I know he’s a bastard, but so was William the Conquerer, and this new guy clearly has the Lionheart boldness. Even if England’s left the rough and ready days of the conquest behind it by this period, you get the sense that he might well find a way.

Yet there’s something clownish about the Bastard. It’s not just in his outsider/fool’s prerogative to social commentary, but can also be found in his outsize, almost inappropriate braggadocio. It seemed as though there were several ways one might have played his social reception. The Bastard is in some ways kin to several Shakespeare villains: to Richard III, Edmund, Don John, etc. There again, he has something in common with Shakespeare’s thoughtful commentators—his monologues inviting the audience to stay with him, wherever his uncertain course takes him. The Bastard anchors the play structurally, and in some ways I can see why he would make refashioning King John particularly appealing: one does want it to be his adventure. This actor was winning, as I think whoever takes the part really ought to be: sympathetic and off-putting, cynical, rousing and roused, sneering at the hypocrisy around him and the turns of fate. Given the final word, even if the final word does fall rather limp—a sub-Henry V stab at patriotism, strangely tying up a play in which love of country and grand destiny have played little part.

This performance was especially impressive given that he was playing to a house less than half full, and might well have been deflated, given how much energy a performer can derive from a responsive audience. Even in these depressing circumstances everyone did well, really. In general the casting was effective and the directorial/acting decisions strong, though the acting was sort of in the style of the BBC early 1980s Shakespeare adaptation series. I like that mode, but I think it might strike some people as old-fashioned or, if they’re unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to that style and moment of acting Shakespeare, simply queer.

Contrary to the Telegraph’s point of views I don’t think this was a weak John (Jamie Ballard), actually. There’s a squirrelly likeability to him, especially when he’s being obstinate and fucking up. Much like the Richard II I saw last, really this staging impressed on me the arbitrariness and fragility of ‘strength and decision’ in Kingship, in the way War and Peace is about the fallacy of believing that anyone’s a ‘tactical genius’. John did make an awful, murderous call regarding his nephew Arthur, who he feared would continue to compete with him for the throne, but this isn’t quite positioned as his problem as a ruler.

It’s unclear just what John’s problem is: in many circumstances he seems to bear up. Is it the moment of doubt the Bastard rallies him out of? I can’t really see Shakespeare condemning a character for that period of introspection. Is it too much pragmatism, in marrying Blanch to the Dauphin? Too little, in his obstinacy against the Pope? Too much again, in relenting? Despoiling the monasteries, as Richard II did his nobles with taxation? The nobles’ treachery or stupidity (or are they rather to blame for being too good and trusting, in their belief that the Dauphin will do right by them)? In this version at least, I could not quite tell you why John is a Bad King (it’s not exactly the Arthur mess, for which he’s only part culpable). In Henry VI I could, and in Richard II I could give you an answer depending on the production, and Richard III is pie-easy, but this John: ???

People’s fortunes rise and fall in this play not because they’re brave or brilliant or good, but because no one is unshakably any of these. And if they are, that isn’t enough. Arthur, the king that ought to have been, is young, high-born and fair, intelligent, brave and good, and dies horribly specifically on account of being all these things.

Would-be-murderer Hubert and Arthur (here played by the excellent understudy) were also particularly good, and I must point out the unexpected but pleasing appearance of Miles Richardson (Brax!!) in silly facial hair as A Rando Lord. British Theatre: all 50 people of it. You see them around, and if you don’t you get worried about whether they’re eating. (Not whether they’ve died, because Toby Hadoke would have been duly dispatched to spit out an article on that occasion.)

The Kingston Rose itself is a very nice space. The entire theatre, inside the auditorium and out, feels simultaneously both roomy and comfortable and intimate. The double-seats would be weird if I had to share with a stranger rather than my partner, but happily, I did not. They have quite reasonable prices, as well. I kind of fancy going to see something else at this theatre—not ‘any old shit’, but you know, if there happened to be something goodish looking going on there, I’d be more inclined to bite due to the place’s being pleasant, even as something would have to be dipped in gold before my arse, which still smarts with the memory, would again brave the Haymarket cheap seats.


I love the Rose’s current set design (essentially the above with less silly bling), re-purposed from Nunn’s epic Wars of the Roses last year. And who can blame them for up-cycling? That lighting is high quality, real flame you can instantly turn off, and what must be, for Health and Safety reasons, super-retardant wood—that thing must have been dear.). However this play, which lends itself more to stately tableaux than to dynamic action, didn’t make thorough use of this tiered framework. I don’t see how they could have done, really, and I wouldn’t want arbitrary running up and down to generate energy. (If you’re not the Globe, don’t try to Globe in some half-assed fashion.) But my sister, high off her first public directing gig, was poisonous as a monk and as unforgiving as young Arthur’s mother on this front. She would have Nunn of it.

That said, there was much to complain about in the staging. The tinny music, pumped in at volume, seemed a little Am-Dram. But that is not the real problem. This is:

“There are faintly ghastly synthesised fanfares, the sort of modish use of live video to capture the coronation of Jamie Ballard’s John (with obtrusive cameramen) that already looks old-hat, and on the two distracting monitors aloft we’re also shown scene-setting snapshots and mock-medieval battlefield footage that musters all the atmosphere of a conference-centre slide-show.”

The gentleman from the Telegraph is, I am still astounded to note, totally correct. In fact this description does not capture the full horror of what transpired. I initially refused to believe any mature adult production, much less a director of Nunn’s experience, has tried to pull something that, while conceptually sound, was as awkward-looking as the love between a Chihuahua and a Great Dane. One may sympathize with this uncomfortable passion, but not present it as a spectacle to a paying audience: it is best to draw a veil. I thought no—this is a one-off thing. I insisted as much to sister and partner, who disagreed. There has been a Technical Difficulty, I said, opening my credulous heart to this poor production team, who were frantically working around some catastrophe.

But no. No! Someone, cradle to grave, thought this would look good. Someone watched it after the hurly-burly was done and the previews lost and won and thought, yes. Someone instructed and paid these cameramen, every show. The footage is not even pre-recorded. I suppose these visuals were meant to engage us in a discourse on power, image, celebrity and pressure, but they do so only incidentally by reminding me that once the Bad Decision Ball starts rolling down a hill, it is particularly difficult to stop and can crush all in its path (especially so if it was first shoved by someone powerful).

Better scenes of Medieval Battle than a sad attempt to faux-stage one with even this sizable cast, I suppose. And I wouldn’t let my entire judgment of the staging and aesthetics of the piece rest on this one (spectacularly poor) decision. I even like the big Whole Cast Gather Round tableaux! But over and again, wonky dream sequence to the falling Prince Arthur (everything on the screens at odds with the general 80s BBC adaptation aesthetic), I thought, would that either someone Back to Basics or someone weird and good like whoever designed Curious Incident had worked this either down or up. You’re either speaking a certain visual language or you aren’t, and you can’t awkwardly garble a few loan-words and call it patois.

It’s so hard to call what’s gone wrong in a production unless you get the dirt (and does it ultimately matter exactly where the fuck up originated?). You can see the effects, but even as it’s hard to talk about the work of an editor from looking at a final draft, when you see a play it’s hard to single out whether certain decisions are a result of there having been no money, of some hitch in the process, of a failure of collaboration, a bad costume designer or a director who didn’t care.

That said, I have no idea what to make of Trevor Nunn. Looking over the course of his career, which has been studded with incredible successes, I wonder whether he’s (and this is never a stone I like to throw) gone to seed, or if he just didn’t care about the technical aspects of this production. Possibly he simply needed the cash? Or perhaps he’s always been erratic. I loved Nunn’s Ian McKellan and Judi Dench Macbeth, and have enjoyed Lady Jane since childhood. And you can’t blame Nunn for Starlight Express (answer me ‘fuck no’) and Cats being what they are—that’s on Andrew ‘Massive Tory’ ‘Love Never Dies’ Lloyd Webber, who seems to sometimes be incredibly good at his job largely by accident. But I can barely remember Nunn’s 2011 Haymarket version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, despite its having featured my absolutely beloved Jamie Parker. That’s especially strange because if I’m given a bit to think on it, I remember every play I’ve attended with creepy Miss Havisham levels of fidelity. I’m ambivalent about his National Oklahoma, particularly the staging of “Pore Jud Is Daid”. His Twelfth Night film didn’t make an enormous impression on me. I know the Cyrano project he produced was a rough ride from the translator’s notes, but I’m not sure enough about Nunn’s role in that to talk about his performance in collaborations. I have a personal grudge against him for not ‘getting’ Gareth Thomas as a performer and for not, I suspect (based on interviews, rather than a 70s/80s conspiracy theory), having given him a proper chance during his reign over the RSC, but I’m aware that I’m biased on that front.

I guess my take-away is not necessarily that Nunn gave no fucks about his King John, but that he is a director with severe strengths and weaknesses, and has been for a good long while. I think I can almost vaguely discern the shape of His Problem As I See It. Something like—no real feel for working with spaces and sets (and possibly with costuming). Fantastic with actors, but simultaneously prone to marshalling them and the texts he directs to the affects he likes and works best with, sometimes inappropriately. Prone to rejecting what he can’t get to operate in his chosen register, which sometimes means pushing away both certain forms of subtlety/complexity and comic/non-realist registers? (And if the latter is true—what the fuck was he doing directing a Nicholas Nickleby? I’m going to watch that shit and find out…) But I’d have to sit down at the V&A archive and get access to a good chunk of his back-catalogue to shape and confirm my guesses. And that sounds like a thesis, or at least an article, and I don’t see ‘Trevor Nunn the Monograph’ in my future.