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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HAND TO GOD
at Vaudeville Theatre

PUPPETS AND PULPITS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  (L to R) Jemima Rooper, Neil Pearson, Harry Melling, Janie Dee and Kevin Mains/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

Heaven knows the notion of an evil presence maliciously inhabiting a ventriloquist’s dummy is hardly revolutionary. Back in 1945, in the classic British chiller Dead of Night, a vent, played by Michael Redgrave, finds himself the unfortunate victim of just such a toxic prop. In Devil Doll (1964), a hypnotist-cum-vent eerily turns his dummy, Hugo, into a murderer. And think of the gruesome Chucky franchise, in which an ordinary-looking doll morphs into a serial killer.
 
The latest variation on this theme is Robert Askins’ Hand to God, first seen off-Broadway, then on Broadway, where it received several Tony nominations and enjoyed a successful run.

Akins’ demonic creation is a redheaded hand puppet made of gray sock, fake fur and felt. His name is Tyrone, and he fetches up in Texas, in a Lutheran church basement as part of a puppet show aimed at spreading the word of God. In charge of the project is a widow called Margery (Janie Dee), the recent death of whose husband from over-eating has turned her into a borderline nervous wreck. Equally affected is her withdrawn, grief-stricken teenage son Jason (Harry Melling).
 
As a therapeutic aid to his own troubled state of mind, Jason is put in charge of Tyrone, and while never being asked to become a ventriloquist, he’s expected to hone his puppetry skills sufficiently well enough to perform in front of an audience. Also part of the group is Timothy (Kevin Mains), a testosterone-filled youth who has the hots for Margery; and Jessica (Jemima Rooper), an unassuming young girl more into Balinese shadow puppetry, she says, than glove puppetry and who is the secret object of Jason’s fumbling affections. Overseeing the ministry is Pastor Greg (Neil Pearson), a decent enough man, but not without his own libidinous longings for Margery.
 
Though the yearnings and sexual frustrations of all five characters certainly play an active part in fleshing out the play’s slender narrative, its raison d’être is the increasingly demonic hold the serially foul-mouthed Tyrone has over the mild-mannered Jason. The contrast between them grows with each fresh confrontation, ending in violence and mutilation.
 
If, as is likely, British audiences may have difficulty engaging with the kind of hothouse religiosity so prevalent in America’s Bible Belt, where such evangelically inspired puppet shows really do exist, there is no denying Melling’s bravura performance as Jason/Tyrone. Though he makes no attempt at throwing his voice, he brilliantly creates two very distinct personalities, changing in seconds from one to the other. It’s an astonishing accomplishment.
 
And while the mood of Hand to God ends on a decidedly dark note, Akins liberally infuses his play with laughter. Especially funny are its two set pieces – the first being a variation on the famous Abbott and Costello sketch “Who’s on First”, the second a graphic, jaw-dropping scene in which Tyrone performs various sex acts with a female glove puppet. What gives it its edge and makes it so hilarious is that both Jason and Jessica, who are manipulating the puppets, remain oblivious to all the sexual activity.
 
Though grief and the way people cope with it (or don’t) is lightly touched on. The play’s underlying message is that we’re all fallible and open to temptation. No matter how religious we may profess to be, there’s a little bit of devilry in us all.
 
Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, who directed the play on Broadway, repeats the assignment here and brings more than a touch of Grand Guignol to the bizarre proceedings. Who knows, but Hand to God may just be offbeat enough to find a limited albeit appreciative audience.

 


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