From Off-Off Broadway to Off-Broadway and then to Broadway itself, Robert Askins’s Hand to God has proved itself to be the little play that could since its 2011 debut. The tale of a miserable Texan teen, Jason, stuck in his mother’s Christian puppetry workshop, who finds himself taken over by Tyrone, the left-hand, red-haired sock puppet he’s fashioned, has clearly struck a chord with audiences, and Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production now arrives in the West End with a great deal of audience goodwill towards it, judging by the wildly (over-)enthusiastic response to the opening night performance. In fact, it’s really not all that, but the show - best experienced with a large group of friends in a rowdy and undemanding frame of mind - proves a mildly amusing time-passer.
Although Avenue Q is the knee-jerk reference point for the show (and one stand-out scene of enthusiastic puppet sex here is a total rip off), the scenario of Hand to God is actually closer in spirit to the likes of Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978) and the Michael Redgrave-starring section of Dead of Night (1945), works in which recessive male characters find themselves acting out their dark impulses via ventriloquist dummies. But where those films mined the protagonist’s obsessions for creepy chills, Hand to God goes for brash, broad, black comedy, its target religious dogma. The play’s approach reminded me quite a bit of another recent US import, Greg Kotis's Pig Farm, also a work that has fun with American archetypes and indulges (excessively, IMO) in slapstick violence – including, again, a full-on parody of a James M. Cain sex scene.
While neither play or production could be called seamless (one especially awkward scene, not helped by a First Night hiccup, is set in a car for no apparent reason than to demonstrate that the show can evidently afford a car now), von Stuelpnagel makes sure that the proceedings keeps up pace, and the play is ultimately better sustained than Pig Farm.
The production is helped in no small measure by the gusto and physical abandon with which the cast throw themselves into their roles. I’d have liked more of Jemima Rooper, who seems a bit wasted as Jessica, the nicely nerdy object of Jason's desires but Janie Dee as Jason’s frazzled Mom, Margery, Kevin Mains as his cocksure nemesis and Neil Pearson as a pastor with romantic designs all his own are terrific. And Harry Melling delivers a tour de force as Jason/Tyrone: always a distinctive and inventive actor, Melling is in his element here, as he creates two distinct characters, his timidity as Jason contrasting hilariously with Tyrone’s foul-mouthed tirades.
Hand to God doesn’t hit the few grace notes it strives for: as well as a portrait of the divided human soul, the play strives – and, I think, singularly fails – to touch the heart as a tale of a mother and son working out their relationship after a bereavement. It’s thin material, and not a show to go to with big expectations, but it looks pretty certain to gain some devout followers during its time in the West End.
The production is currently booking until 11th June.