Every now and then a show comes along to shake up the West End a little. Jerry Springer: The Opera did it in 2003, The Book of Mormon came along in 2013 and now its Hand To God's turn to shock and exhilarate London audiences in 2016.
Set in the deep south of America, Hand To God tells the story of Jason, a teenage boy who develops a strong relationship with a sock puppet, Tyrone, and begins to express his most devilish thoughts through him. It’s bold, dark and absolutely hilarious; perfect to see with friends, though this is probably not for the faint-hearted or easily offended and definitely not for children under 15. It deals with the dark side of themes about grief, adolescence and religion through characters that are so different from the British public and yet completely familiar.
Hand To God has built up a lot of hype since it opened at the beginning of the month; you could sense that the audience really wanted to love it. We knew we were in for something crazy and shocking; we just weren’t sure exactly what that would be. The first few minutes were a little tense; we all wanted it to be amazing, so I couldn’t really relax until the laughs started coming much more naturally in the next scene. However, once all the characters were introduced and the spontaneous bursts of laughter began it became clear that this play is pure genius.
The Bible Belt of America is subject to curiosity among the British public; it’s hard to imagine a town so devoutly religious, the puppet workshop seems quaintly batty and so part of Hand To God’s appeal is surrealism. Yet Robert Askins, the brilliant writer behind this show, wrote from his own experience in a Church puppet club during his childhood. I think this gives Hand To God another level of fascination for the British audience, that it may not have received on Broadway.
The person leading this incredibly vivid setting is Janie Dee, who plays Jason’s mother, Margery. Having lost her husband, she is an incredibly fragile and broken woman, trying to cope in whatever way she can, even if that means doing things that will not sit well with the Church community. Dee gives a fantastic performance and maintains the southern feel to the show better than any of the other cast.
Neil Pearson plays Pastor Greg, the man in love with Margery and tasked with attempting to get through to Jason once Tyrone has fully taken hold of him. He doesn’t make as much impact as the other characters, mainly as his character is the stereotypical bumbling clergyman, preaching about love and forgiveness. However Pearson is still integral to the show, giving it more religious context, and also offers some chuckling moments, particularly when he discovers the carnage that Tyrone has created in the church basement.
Undeniably the star of Hand To God is Harry Melling, who plays Jason and of course Tyrone. Melling is best known for playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter film series and this is definitely the role that will cement him as a rising star among British actors. Playing both Jason and Tyrone is so demanding; he uses two completely different voices and gives Tyrone such a huge and hilarious personality. It takes real talent to be able to master this sort of puppetry so that the audience completely focuses on Tyrone but Melling makes this seem effortless. Most of the hilarious moments came from him and Tyrone, he has a knack for making even the smallest manipulation of the puppet funny. However the most shocking moments came from him too. One of the final scenes was so dark, dramatic and terrifying that audience members around me were whispering “No...!” I would go to Hand To God again purely for his incredible performance.
Jemima Rooper and Kevin Mains played Jessica and Timothy, the two other kids in the Church puppet club. They were so funny and charismatic and brought so much energy to the show. I was so impressed with this cast; there wasn’t a single weak link to be found. Another noteworthy part of the show was the amazing set that moved from the Church basement to a playpark to Jason’s bedroom like a pop-up book; I still can’t quite figure out how it all worked.
Hand To God is an amazing show, fully deserving of its Best New Play nomination at last year’s Tony awards. I’m sure it will continue to be a big hit on the West End and maybe even pick up an Olivier Award this year. If you are a fan of comedy that pushes boundaries, like Avenue Q and the Book of Mormon, this is a brilliant show for you and I would highly recommend going to see it.
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