This is not your typical comedy. Not only because a puppet is the main character – which is hardly a new thing after Avenue Q or even War Horse – but because of its frenzied tone and super-dark humour. With a rather simple story, Hand to God manages to keep your interest throughout, while making you laugh, or worse, hyperventilate. Written by Robert Askins, this irreverent, Tony-nominated play is a Broadway transfer: over here it has recently been nominated for an Olivier Award in the Best New Comedy category.
To be honest, nothing makes much sense in the story, yet once you are in, it is impossible not to fall for it. Widow Margery (Janie Dee) tries to cope with the death of her husband by running a puppet making course at her local church. Her son, Jason (Harry Melling), outcast Jessica (Jemima Rooper) and disruptive bully Timothy (Kevin Mains) attend the course, while pastor Greg (Neil Pearson) tries to get the puppet club to perform while winning Margery’s heart. Problems start when Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, starts having a life of its own while still attached to Jason’s hand. All hell breaks loose – quite literally – as the foul-mouthed, rudely funny sock-puppet becomes increasingly aggressive.
The cast of five (or six if you count Tyrone) work wonderfully as a perfectly timed team in a play that demands loads of energy and intensity. All of them go hysterical at some point, and in all cases this is done effectively. Melling’s Jason/Tyrone is simply mesmerising, playing an introvert teenager and a satanic puppet at the same time without effort and without attempting to ventriloquise. Melling ends up rolling on the floor fighting Tyrone and, believe me, it is utterly believable. Dee plays Margery wonderfully, giving the character complexity and a twisted personality that unravels as the play goes on. Disappointingly, there is not much time throughout the play dedicated to develop any of the characters apart from Jason and Margery, which is a shame. However, they balance the action and make the play not just about a dysfunctional family and a possessed puppet, but also about other issues. Depression, dealing with loss, the lack of communication and growing up all are part of the play, but are kept at bay at all times by the evil sock.
Hand to God is hilarious, in a South Park kind of way. There is absolutely nothing subtle about it, which sometimes can feel a bit repetitious (after an hour of b-word and sexual references) or just plain excessive. However, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and simply watching Tyrone is cracking in itself, not to mention the most awkwardly funny puppet sex scene you will ever see. It is a bit rough around the edges in terms of character development and sub-plots, but it is also refreshing, daring and darkly funny. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of satanic puppetry?
Hand to God is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until June 11. For more information and tickets, see the Hand to God website.