Hand to God
15 February 2016
Since his dad died, Jason doesn’t go anywhere without Tyrone. Unless he’s taking a bath, the Texan adolescent always wears his home-made hand-puppet and dutifully attends the ‘puppet practice’ run by his mother, Margery.
Seeing as she can’t preach, sing or bake brownies, the soul-searching widow teaches the classes at the local church in order to ingratiate herself with its congregation, and obedient Jason does everything he can – singing his songs and enduring humiliation – to please her.
But under intense pressure, even ‘good’ people go pop… Cue Tyrone: the naughtiest hand-puppet in Christendom. The sweet and amenable Jason – comparable to Little Shop of Horrors’ Seymour Krelborn – doesn’t know how to get the girl or stand up to the class bully Timothy. But Tyrone, his very own Audrey II, shows him exactly how to get what he wants.
The comedy’s set up is an ambitious one, so its weighty opening scenes move slowly. But once the dizzying exposition is in place, Hand to God spirals towards blissful hysteria. And my God, it’s good.
Set in the familiar surrounds of a Sunday-school classroom, the unholy action that unfolds is gleefully heretical, and the stella cast of five lob themselves head-first into the cult drama. Janie Dee is devilishly good as the tormented Margery, whose manicured exterior begins to crack, as is Jemima Rooper who plays Jessica – the girl-next-door with gumption and the apple of Jason’s eye.
But it’s Harry Melling’s epic performance that takes today’s proverbial crown. Melling – Jason, Tyrone, genius – tears himself (and his puppet) in two as it possesses him. The demon sock embodies the voices in Jason’s head; its outbursts are the manifestation of his darting hormones, suppressed, burgeoning rage, and his grief,.
With this huge task on his hands (literally), the superbly intelligible Melling reinvents ventriloquism, suspending the audience’s disbelief and then some. Jason is horrified by the things that come out of his (or Tyrone’s) mouth until, eventually, the distinction between man and monster, good and bad, is blurred.
Interestingly aligned in stark contrast to Jason is the character of Timothy (Kevin Mains), whose outrageous behaviour is comparable to that of Tyrone’s. Timothy doesn’t think twice before hurling profanities (or chairs) across the classroom. Consequently, his anger at life doesn’t require an exorcism.
I’m aware I’ve made Robert Askins’ comedy sound pretty serious, but it’s stating the bleeding obvious to say Hand to God is funny. Maybe this is a good time to mention puppet sex… True, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s musical Avenue Q went there first, but Rooper’s nipple flicking and Melling’s obscene grunting take fornicating hand-puppets to a whole new level.
It’s utter filth but, in actuality, Hand to God is about more than foul-mouthed sock-puppets; as with Sesame Street, Book of Mormon, Avenue Q and The Little Shop of Horrors, there’s substance to it – a lesson to be learnt. As Margery vindictively tears pages out of Pastor Greg’s (Neil Pearson) Holy Bible, she poignantly reveals that, when it comes to grief, nothing helps. How long could she and Jason have held it together? They were going to have to face up to their demons sooner rather than later.