The Making of Moo
Orange Tree Theatre Autumn 2009
Nigel Dennis' 1957 play is a witty and angry satire of religion, whose anger eventually gets in the way of its wit and its dramatic effectiveness, bogging it down in heavy-handedness.
This is a double shame, because religion can always use some witty satirising, and because there is a lot of fun to be had in Dennis' attack before it loses its energy.
Dennis imagines a British engineer who has just built a dam for an African country, only to be told in passing that in the process he killed off the local river god. Uneasy with loose ends, he decides to spend his last few days there creating a new religion for the natives.
His plan at first is just a set of very rational commandments, much (he imagines) like the Highway Code, but his wife and assistant, getting caught up in the game, convince him there's more than that to religion-making.
Soon they're debating just how anthropomorphic their new god will be, how merciful, how vengeful, and before they know it the wife is writing a whole bible and the assistant is crafting hymns.
So far so good, especially with throw-away lines like 'The whole trouble with make-believe is that in order to make it you have to at least pretend to believe it' and 'Though educated people will believe any nonsense, illiterates have to be convinced.'
We then jump ahead two years to discover that not only have they made the new religion, but they've fallen for it themselves, and it has strayed considerably from the Highway Code, with native dances, graven images and human sacrifices.
The joke is good, but it's also all there in the first few seconds, and stretching this sequence out only lets you notice that not much is being added to it, while lines like 'Lovers of Moo unite - you have nothing to lose but your brains' aren't quite as original or biting.
Dennis has one more joke to make, and it's a good one, as a final scene several years later shows the Church of Moo to have evolved into something as conventional and mainstream as the C of E ('Stick to your religion if you must,' a doubter had advised earlier, ' But try to make it more tepid.').
But again the point is made almost instantly, leaving the final scene of the play to linger on as its satiric and dramatic energy dissipates.
So come to The Making Of Moo for the punch of its first act, but be prepared for an almost minute-by-minute fading of its wit and power.
Philip York and Amanda Royle are very funny, particularly in the first act and the first few moments of the second, as the god-makers caught up in their own invention, and Ben Onwukwe is droll as a native servant trying to keep up with their enthusiasms.
Director Sam Waters, normally a master of theatre-in-the-round, seems to have dozed this time, as I spent far too much time seeing nothing but actors' backs.
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Review of The Making Of Moo - Orange Tree Theatre 2009