Writer: Robert Askins
Director: Moritz Von Stuelpnagel
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Demonic puppets are something the West End doesn’t see all that often, and as associated as they are with children’s TV, a number of productions in recent years including Avenue Q and War Horse have seen puppetry as a genuine theatre art – in other words, they’re all grown up. Robert Askins’Hand to God, which recently opened at the Vaudeville Theatre and won plaudits aplenty on Broadway is an adult play with a genuinely dark puppet-centre.
Margery has recently lost her husband and spends her time running ‘Puppet Practice’ a class at the local church hall that teaches children how to make sock puppets as a way to deal with attitude and behavioural problems. In the class is her son, whose puppet Tyrone has begun to take over Jason’s mind, as an aggressive and outspoken ‘voice’. As Margery reels from the unwanted advances of the local Pastor, she makes an unfortunate choice that has damaging consequences for her son’s sanity and his belief in the devil.
Hand to God is a very strange play – part sitcom, part farce, part horror film – it never quite decides on what type of comedy it wants to be, so tries them all. In many ways, the story is incredibly superficial with almost no character development or depth, with a sketchy sense of plot and direction. It lurches from one exaggeratedly brief scene to another without making it entirely clear what it is trying to say. That is until the very end when the light hints at mental illness and the abuses of the church come together in the final ‘here’s the message’ moment in the style of an after-school special.
It’s one that is probably going to split audiences; it’s certainly vulgar and consciously outrageous with puppet sex and irreligious activity such as tearing up a bible, which will probably shock the less jaded theatre-goer. The writing isn’t sophisticated in the way that Hangmen is or as truly farcical as the recent Harlequinade, it’s somewhere in between – a sort of Jackass meets Rod Hull and Emu.
But the puppetry is excellent and the character of Tyrone, for he is an entirely distinct character, is brilliantly controlled and voiced by Harry Melling, who plays the dual role of timid Jason and the despicable sock. A particularly brilliant scene shows the two arguing in Jason’s bedroom where Tyrone is so frustrated he pummels Jason around the head, which is hilarious. Melling is so good at playing it completely straight, making Tyrone distinct despite essentially being part of Jason’s imagination.
Neil Pearson also delivers an excellent, if underused, performance as the frustrated Pastor Greg, who somewhat topically in the wake of the film Spotlight, appears to be using religion to force his attentions on Margery but, as the story unfolds, he is merely a lonely man and the only point of normalcy in a very odd situation. Janie Dee’s Margery rather quickly allows her façade to drop and is at a fairly high pitch throughout, although the scenes with Kevin Mains as student Timothy while amusing aren’t physically polished yet and they seemed unsure of the space.
Beowulf Borritt’s double-revolve set cleverly turns walls around to create the church hall, Jason’s bedroom, Margery’s car and a playground in a split second, although mechanical failure did impede an early scene change. There are some good lines and some impressive puppet work but Hand to God is a cartoonish look at mental illness and the demonisation of behaviour that comes from organised religion. It doesn’t tackle either of those things in any meaningful way, which will irritate half the audience but the other half will be laughing so hard they won’t care.
Runs until11 June 2016 | Image:Tristram Kenton
Related article: Harry Melling on becoming a handyman