Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
Hand to God, described by The New Yorker as ‘Sesame Street meets The Exorcist’, is the story of Jason, who’s been dragged along to his mum’s puppet-making class at the local church, as she tries to keep busy following the death of his father. Unfortunately while his mother’s getting propositioned by both teenager Timothy and the church pastor, Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, is starting to take on a life of his own, and develops a bad habit of saying inappropriate things, exploding light bulbs and biting people’s earlobes off.
And then in act 2, things get really weird.
So it’s safe to say Robert Askins' show isn't for the faint-hearted, and definitely not for the easily offended. (And if you’re freaked out by possessed hand puppets, it’ll probably give you nightmares for a month.) But it sort of goes without saying that it's also very funny - in a messed up, disturbing kind of way that means every time you laugh you feel a little bit bad about it.
Harry Melling is a revelation; he manages with ease the dual role of mild-mannered Jason and foul-mouthed Tyrone, often looking as shocked as we are by what he's just said. He switches voice and personality at dizzying speed and handles his puppet (not a euphemism) so skilfully that after a while it’s easy to forget that Tyrone isn’t actually alive. Or maybe he is…? [insert horror movie music here]
Janie Dee is brilliantly unhinged as Jason’s mother Margery, her prim and proper façade falling away as all hell breaks loose. Neil Pearson is an increasingly dishevelled Pastor Greg, who offers himself to Margery in a very lovely but pretty lame speech about empty arms and listening ears, and who ultimately turns out to be as potty-mouthed as everyone else (which is a shame, actually; I quite liked 'son of a biscuit'). Kevin Mains plays bullying Timothy with a perfect mix of teenage swagger and awkward vulnerability. And Jemima Rooper keeps her composure against all the odds as Jason’s classmate Jessica, who comes to his rescue in an unexpected way that – I think it’s fair to say – eases a little of the tension for them both.
But as irreverent as the humour certainly is, there are some serious questions at the heart of the play. Is there a right and wrong way to deal with grief? Is Jason's hand really possessed or is he just using it as an excuse to release his despair over his father's death? And why is it that from time to time, and much as we might not want to admit it, the evil puppet actually seems to be talking a lot of sense?
Hand to God is not for everyone, but as long as you arrive at the theatre prepared for a very odd couple of hours, with a lot of laughs but also a healthy dose of profanity, violence and fornicating puppets, then you'll probably love it. If that's not your thing... maybe pop next door and see Kinky Boots instead.
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