Don’t you just hate it when your hand puppet gets possessed and claims it’s the devil? Well, er, I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that myself! Though now, thanks to Hand to God, I think I have a rough idea about how that might turn out…
The show has transferred over from Broadway to the Vaudeville Theatre for a strictly limited season, and tells the story of Jason and his struggle to cope with the loss of his father. Rather than a more traditional mourning process, at the behest of Pastor Greg, his mother has thrown herself into running a puppet club at her local church – and of course she has press ganged Jason into joining in. Whilst his fellow members Jessica & Timothy aren’t particularly enthusiastic, Jason seems comforted by creating Tyrone. Until he gives him a voice. Which is, of course, where all the trouble starts!
Robert Askins‘ book is punchy and full of laughs. Despite the relatively short running time (1h55, including an interval), it feels well balanced in terms of both the scene & act lengths. Quite interestingly Askins includes a prologue & epilogue from Tyrone, which introduce & sum up the themes explored in the play. It’s an entertaining night out, but it does make you stop & think.
The set is wonderfully designed by the equally wonderfully named Beowulf Boritt. The bright colours suggesting a child-friendly affair, hiding the dark core of the play. The perils of a mechanised set caused an ever-so-slight delay in the first act, however it mostly ran seamlessly from one scene to another.
Marte Ekhougen’s puppet designs are simple but striking. They are also slightly enhanced from any glove puppets I’ve previously seen, in that their arms are operated separately with the puppeteer’s other hand. This allows for greater flexibility and more physical comedy to be employed!
The company is fantastic – they have clearly gelled and all have brilliant Southern American accents (the play is set in Cypress, Texas).
Neil Pearson has some chuckleworthy lines as Pastor Greg (“Son of a… Biscuit!”), and Janie Dee is brilliant as Jason’s grieving & confused mother, Margery. The pair have a few scenes together, and work very well together.
Puppet club’s bully, Timothy, is played by the fantastically lively Kevin Mains. He is especially hilarious in helping to smash up the classroom with Margery, and his attempts to ‘woo’ her.
Jemima Rooper is Jessica, the clear object of Jason’s affections. Rooper has natural comic timing and utilises it to great effect. She also gets the chance to do some puppetry when Jessica completes her puppet & names her Jolene.
Harry Melling leads the cast as Jason & Tyrone, doing an incredible job in what must be a very physically demanding role. He’s a born comic actor with a great propensity for eliciting big laughs from the audience. He is also a fantastic puppeteer, bringing Tyrone to life with his own distinct voice & physicality.
There is one scene in particular (you’ll know it when you see it!) for which I think Melling & Rooper deserve an award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Keeping Straight Faces’. How they manage to keep talking, without corpsing, as the situation gets ever more ridiculous I do not know!
The show has plenty of laughs, particularly in the first act and mostly thanks to Melling’s dual performance. It does take a very dark turn towards the end, and is perhaps rushed to its conclusion a bit, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.
My verdict? A dark & dirty production with lots of laughs provided by a very skilled and funny cast – if you love puppets and swearing this is the perfect show for you!