For someone who really isn’t a fan of puppets, I do see an awful lot of shows with them in. But I should clarify that I’m OK with more muppety types (hence loving Avenue Q and more recently The Lorax) and so I reckoned I’d be safe with the latest Broadway import to hit the West End – Hand To God. But whether its Avenue Q meets The Book of Mormon or Sesame Street meets The Exorcist, depending on which poster you read, its firmly adult nature is in no doubt.
Harry Melling’s Jason is a young man grieving his father. His religious mother, Janie Dee’s Margery, has pressganged him into joining a church group but when he helps out with their puppet show, the consequences for all concerned are most extreme. As the sock puppet companion he creates, Tyrone, quickly becomes a conduit for all of Jason’s repressed teenage emotions, whether lust for Jemima Rooper’s downbeat Jessica or retaliation towards Kevin Mains’ bullying Timothy, the puppet takes on a manic life of its own.
Thus the scene is set for all kinds of disruptive chaos and Robert Askin’s play – first seen Off-Off-Broadway in 2011 – revels in the increasingly puerile antics, as Tyrone does and says what Jason dares not, leading to some eye-blinking scenes of puppet coitus, the likes of which it is safe to say you probably haven’t seen before. And the liberation (of sorts) proves infectious, leading Margery to act out her bereavement too by scratching an itch with the horny Timothy.
Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production marshals his UK cast well: Melling is an unqualified success (and what a genuine thrill seeing his theatrical career blossom) as both sides of this severely split personality alive to all its comic potential but awake too to its underlying pathos; it’s a real pleasure to see Dee in such a unrestrained modern role and she connects well with Mains; and if Rooper and Neil Pearson as a pastor also keen on Margery are somewhat underused, it is good to see such strong actors on stage again.
Equally though, there’s no doubting that this will be an utterly marmite production as it takes no prisoners, it will either click with your sense of humour or it really won’t. And even if it does, the joke it tells gets stretched out fairly thin, there’s little of substance to Askins’ writing as it skates idly over the bigger issues it touches upon, leaving the heavy lifting to underworked polemics that book-end the production. What do you do with a BA in English? Write a better play to support your jokes.