Theatre reviews: The Book Of Mormon | Girl From The North Country | Impromptu At Oran Mor

Two major touring shows explore the role of religion in America, writes Joyce McMillan

The Book Of Mormon, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

Girl From The North Country, Theatre Royal, Glasgow ****

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Impromptu At Oran Mor, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

Connor Peirson, Aviva Tulley and Robert Colvin in The Book Of Mormon (Pic: Paul Coltas)
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The role of religion in the history and culture of the United States is a huge and fascinating subject; and this autumn, Scotland plays host to two major touring shows that touch on this vital theme from vastly different angles. At the Playhouse in Edinburgh, the current UK touring production of The Book Of Mormon explodes onto the stage with all the exhilarating energy of a show that combines fierce socio-political satire with the wide-eyed bubblegum exuberance of a high school musical.

First seen in New York in 2011, this taboo-busting musical tells the tale of two young Mormon “elders” whose faith encounters severe challenges when they are posted to a remote Ugandan village where the favourite saying translates as “F*** you, God.” The great trick of the show is to make this central pair of unlikely heroes both highly sympathetic and endearingly ridiculous, as they try to reconcile the fever-dream surrealism of their Mormon beliefs, and the virulent racism of the original Book Of Mormon, with the grim realities of life in a war-torn African village.

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In the end, the message is clear; that literal interpretations of holy writ are dangerous, and that religious foundation myths should be understood as loving metaphor, if at all. Along the way, though, this remarkable show delivers two fine central performances Robert Colvin and Conner Peirson, and some mighty and hilarious song and dance numbers, as a terrific 25-strong cast belt out this brilliant plea for 21st century enlightenment with wit, passion, and joy.

Like most American popular music, the songs of Bob Dylan are indelibly influenced by the great traditions of soul and gospel music; and those links can rarely have been more powerfully expressed than in Conor McPherson’s remarkable 2017 musical Girl From The North Country. Set in a down-at-heel boarding house in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, Minnesota, in the depths of the great 1930s depression, the show rivals John Steinbeck in its sense of tragedy, as its characters struggle for survival amid a collapsing economy, and sing of their troubles in a Dylan songbook that majors on neglected beauties such as Tight Connection To My Heart, and I Want You.

To say that the theme of the show seems timely, amid the current economic crisis, is to understate its emotional impact; and it’s also a revelation to hear Dylan’s songs performed by such a wide range of voices, male and female, black and white. Amongst an astonishing cast, Colin Connnor, Justina Kehinda and Frances McNamee stand out, as ruined boarding house host Nick Laine, his black adopted daughter Marianne, and his wife Elizabeth, who is losing her mind; but at its heart, this is an ensemble show full of wonderful actors singing like angels, amid the ruins of their characters’ lives.

At Oran Mor, meanwhile, Morna Pearson fires off a jolly secular squib of a show – Impromptu at Oran Mor – inspired by an incident in which the playwright Moliere once undertook to write and prepare an interlude for King Louis XIV, in 40 minutes flat. The show seeks to update the action to modern Scotland, with mixed results; and despite lively performances, and a few decent belly laughs, I was left with the feeling that the indisposition of its Moliere, Kevin Lennon, and his replacement by director Andre Agius with script in hand, had robbed the show of that vital sense of purpose – and even meaning – that might have made it truly hilarious.

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The Book Of Mormon is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 8 October, and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 9-26 November. Girl From The North Country is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow until 17 September, the Playhouse, Edinburgh, 18-22 October, and His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 21-25 February. Impromptu At Oran Mor is at Oran Mor until 17 September, and the Gaiety, Ayr, 22-24 September.