Performed at the Vaudeville Theatre, London
f The Book of Mormon has taught us anything, it’s that even the most vulgar comedy can hit the mark when the jokes are good enough, and the message behind them is compelling. So when the blasphemous Broadway hit Hand to God came to the UK, audiences were anticipating a similar standard. However, while this play is foul-mouthed and irreverent, it fails to fully tap into the potential of its provocative premise – instead, we are presented with a fairly unrefined play, featuring a series of mediocre gags.
Hand to God is set in a Fundamentalist Lutheran ministry in Texas, where teenagers are taught to put on Christian sock puppet shows by the recently widowed Margery (Janie Dee), in the church’s basement. The disinterested members of the class are the unruly Timothy, (Kevin Mains) the geeky Jessica (Jemima Rooper) and Margery’s introverted son, Jason (Harry Melling). The trouble begins when Jason’s beloved puppet Tyrone becomes apparently possessed by Satan and takes on a life of its own. The puppets, which become characters in their own right, are designed by Marte Ekhougen. While they evoke Sesame Street, they appear hand-knitted and have buttons for eyes. Beowulf Boritt’s set design is simple and naturalistic, but undergoes a satanic makeover after Tyrone takes over.
This is the first play written by Texan Robert Askins, and it was patently inspired by his own experience – his mother actually ran a Christian puppet ministry. The play is directed by New York based Moritz von Stuelpnagel, and Hand to God marks his West End debut.
While Askins’ script delivers its fair share of childish gags, there is a modicum of depth beneath – themes of religious sexual repression and personal responsibility shine through. All of the actors provide energetic performances. Melling’s schizophrenic portrayal of Jason and his evil puppet counterpart is one of highlights of the show. Melling is known to Harry Potter film fans as playing Harry’s obese cousin, Dudley – but he has since shed the pounds. Dee’s ability also stands out. The scenes between Margery and Pastor Greg (Neil Pearson) are often compellingly funny and her kinky sexual awakening with the boisterous Timothy is played with tremendous zeal. Dee is most well-known for the rather more highbrow. She most recently starred in an adaptation of Chekov’s play, The Seagull. Unfortunately, all this acting talent couldn’t make up for the shortcomings of the script.
As a play involving religious lampooning and puppets, we impulsively draw comparisons to The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q. It seems that Hand to God is an attempt to emulate the success of these plays – yet, it simply isn’t as funny. While it does have its moments, Hand to God’s humour never progresses to the absurd heights or razor-sharp satire of its contemporaries. Instead, we are offered a gratuitously extended puppet sex scene – which wasn’t that funny to begin with – and a shoehorned moral message that is never fully developed. The lesson we are supposed to take away from the piece is delivered in the form of two monologues delivered by our demonic puppet, which sandwich the play. It is perhaps telling of the shortcomings of the script that this exposition was deemed necessary.
With subject matter like this, it’s hard not to be controversial, but one gets the impression that Askins thinks his script is a lot more edgy than it actually is. Clearly, this is a production firmly aimed at a younger audience, and while there is nothing wrong with that, it runs the risk of condescending to them. Crude humour is a rather cheap strategy for engaging with the youngsters, and while Hand to God was not without its message – the importance of accepting who you are and taking responsibility for your actions – it would have been more ambitious to speak these wisdoms through a mouthpiece less unmoving.