Hand To God – 8th February 2016 – Vaudeville Theatre.
If you thought Avenue Q took naughty puppets to the limit, then you obviously haven’t caught Hand to God, which makes its onstage puppet shenanigans look tame by comparison. That’s right, this play features even more graphic puppet mayhem, swearing and isn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions about religion.
First things first, we were very lucky to get a seat upgrade to the first row! We could literally see all the actors’ expressions close up, and the set was so much more amazing up close. Beowulf Borritt’s set design is incredibly malleable, switching from room to room in a snap, and creates a distinct sense of claustrophobia from both the saccharine sweet basement and the bone chilling state it degrades to in Act II. There is an immensely satisfying amount of detail in the deceptively simple set, with countless props that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever stepped food into Sunday school, down to the Bible-themed board games, or the office, with its framed photos of mission trips and carefully curated shelf of books, including a heavy Bible with an unfortunate fate.
The basic premise of the play is described by The New Yorker as ‘Sesame Street meets the Exorcist’. In Texas, recently widowed Margery (Janie Dee) conducts a Christian puppetry workshop in a church overseen by Pastor Greg (Neil Pearson), attended by teenagers, namely her introvert son, Jason (Henry Melling, better known as Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films), his love interest , Jessica (Jemima Rooper) and troublemaker Timothy (Kevin Mains). Margery’s husband’s death has a severe impact on both herself and Jason, and both have disturbing reactions towards it. Jason in particular, has taken to speaking through his sock puppet Tyrone, who becomes increasingly foul-mouthed and violent as Margery neglects Jason, and the characters find themselves confronted by a demonic Tyrone (who claims to be Satan). What follows is a deeply disturbing, bloody journey into the psyche of both mother and son, and how grief can invite even the devil himself to pay a visit.
Despite a slow start, the play eventually escalates in pacing, stakes and intensity, climaxing in a seemingly endless battle between Jason and his own left hand. Hand to God is not a play for the faint hearted. It aims to shock, horrify and is dark comedy at its best. Throughout its 100 minute run, there were countless moments of discomfort and more than a few moments that were shockingly violent, from kicking furniture around to potential amputation. Yet, despite the immense blood and gore and intensity of the drama, there are just as many darkly humourous moments that genuinely incite laughter, mostly mined from Tyrone, be it his irreverent outbursts or virgin sex experience. Tyrone, for all his inhumanity, is central to the plot, and Henry Melling does an Olivier award worthy job of animating and voicing him, steadily growing more malicious as the play progresses, and all the while also playing Jason. Janie Dee delivers a disturbing performance that snaps between hapless Sunday school teacher and hysterical widow, and has great onstage love-hate chemistry with Kevin Mains. In fact, Hand to God has a spectacular cast, and each one plays their role with aplomb, culminating in performances that will move even the stoniest of hearts.
Hand to God begins and ends, chillingly, with Tyrone waxing on about the flaws of religious dogma, coming full circle. Robert Askins has penned a deliciously dark script that throws religion and family into question, and even after leaving the theatre, you can’t quite help but look at your hands with an apprehensive glance, with the fear that you too will suddenly find yourself possessed by an urge to craft your very own infernal sock puppet.