“When you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t seem right”
This is going to be less of a review than a jumbled thought piece coming out from the marketing campaign for The Book of Mormon which has seen unprecedented levels of saturation across London. The publicity for the show started way back, adverts on buses and in tube stations have been appearing for months now but the week leading up to last Thursday’s press night saw an absolute deluge of coverage which meant it was even harder to escape. Lengthy preview features which all but reviewed the show were printed in newspapers; the #LoveMormon twitter campaign went into overdrive, using many of those tweets as quotes in adverts which, following the gala opening night, included an incredible four page ad just featuring tweets from celebrities.
One might have imagined such levels of hype would be hard to live up to but by all accounts, it has worked as a press release arrived yesterday trumpeting that The Book of Mormon had broken the record for the biggest single day of sales the previous day, taking in an astonishing £2,107,972 and this from a show which had already pretty much sold out until the summer. Of course, one could point to the ticket prices to explain some of the maths – the majority of the tickets are retailing at £74.50 and £127, £39.50 is as far as the cheap seats go (day lottery aside) – but nonetheless, the achievement shouldn’t be underestimated.
But what has been fascinating to watch has been the way in which the mixed (but still largely positive) critical reaction was received. A near-evangelical note crept into the response to any review that wasn’t effusive in its praise, to wit the three star reviews from Billington, Spencer and Purves and their contention that this show might not actually be the second coming. In any case, I reckon Billington is displaying his own brand of subversive humour in rooting out a barely-known 1950s Royal Court play to which to compare its satirical element to unfavourably. But channelling the over-zealousness of such blind support, as this campaign arguably seems to be doing, leaves a funny taste in the mouth and ultimately all seems quite unnecessary.
I don’t know how organically or otherwise the support for the show grew when it first started on Broadway but personally, I find such overbearing hype a real turn-off as I want to be able to see things on my own terms, make up my own mind about a show, free from any preconceptions manipulated by its publicity machine. And that’s how I feel about Mormon – sat there on Thursday (as I was graciously allowed to accompany a friend), I felt the heavy weight of expectation rather than excitement of seeing something with fresh eyes. For me, the biggest thrills in theatres come when they are not necessarily being expected, when one is able to find one’s way into falling in love with a show.
It happens in different ways for different shows – Avenue Q was instant, Matilda was more of a slow-burner – but being repeatedly told in advance that what you are about to watch is the best and the funniest and the most amazing and the most loved by celebrities, robs the experience of its spontaneity. And I’d much rather have a friend who knows what I like send me a recommendation to a show rather than a tweet in a newspaper from Kate Winslet (who did love it, I can confirm) or Jimmy Carr (who wasn’t sat anywhere near me).
In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter too much as far as The Book of Mormon is concerned. Its ticket sales, into the medium-term at least, suggest it will stick around for a good while, though it will be interesting to see how it fares long-term as its more adult content would seem to preclude too big a slice of the family market. And though I do want theatre to thrive and connect with as wide an audience as possible –which this show does seem to be doing – and there are clearly lessons here that can be taken on-board by others to incorporate into their own campaign, a big part of me hopes that this type of overhyped, ongoing marketing campaign is the exception rather than the rule – it ought to be the show doing the talking.
As for the show itself, I liked it, a lot in places. But I also felt that it tried way too hard at times: to be shocking (I guess the language would have had more of an impact stateside); to be cleverly self-referential (which meant it lacked the universal charm that I wanted); to really say something worthwhile – the overall feel for me was that I’d seen something entirely designed for Broadway. But then my reaction was clearly governed, in part, by the overload of info and opinion and anticipation so who knows what I really thought of it. I’m tempted to go back to the show a few months once the hype as died down a little, to see if I can try and get what feels like a more of a clear-headed response.