Monday, February 22, 2016
You gotta get a gimmick: Hand to God @handtogodlondon
Hand to God has landed in the West End after a successful run on Broadway. It's been described as Sesame Street meets the Exorcist but something seems lost in translation in its trip across the pond.
The comedy seems forced and the attempts to shock seem like they miss the target for London audiences. After all, this is a city where its buses advertised that God probably doesn't exist. Fanaticism and seeing things only in black and white is not really what we do over here.
It's a shame as while there is a heavy handed preachy message that misses its mark, there are also some great performances. And some very funny use of sock puppets.
Janie Dee plays Margery, a widow, who has set up a church puppet group for troubled teens. She is an uptight woman obsessed with getting a puppet show in place for the church service on Sunday.
The local pastor (Neil Pearson) has let Margery use the space so he can make some moves on her. The teens include her son Jason (Harry Melling). With him is a nerdy girl Jessica (Jemima Rooper) and local bully Timothy (Kevin Mains).
Jason seems to be making the most progress with his puppet and doing what his mother tells him. But something isn't quite right with his puppet Tyrone. He starts to say filthy things and express things that Jason wouldn't dare say. Soon it seems as if the devil in the form of a sock puppet has taken over Jason's life.
Melling's mastery of two personalities and some funny puppetry is a delight to watch. He throws his voice as the demon-possessed Tyrone while cowering away as Jason. At one point Rooper joins him with her own possessed girl puppet. It is hilarious as they stand next to each other disinterested as their creations have dirty sock puppet sex.
But Jason isn't the only one angry and frustrated. And conflict between Margery and Timothy erupts into some memorable and physical rough sex. The sight of watching Dee and Mains thrash about is great fun, even if wonder how either of them are going to avoid injury during the run.
But the production seems over-produced. Sets swing around and pop out for no reason. There are too many characters and an unnecessary interval which disrupts the flow of the piece. The piece also seems lost in a large theatre and might have benefited from a smaller more intimate space to be filthy.
Like writer Robert Askins, I also grew up with church puppet theatre. I wasn't expecting to be watching this and recalling forgotten and uneventful moments of childhood. Looking back on it, puppets were a bit of a desperate attempt to make church services more palatable. Askins misses the opportunity to explore why his religion would resort to such gimmicks. Instead he aims for broad shocks and vulgarity. And what might seem shocking for US audiences merely elicits a shrug here.
The production might have translated better if it replaced religion for a more treasured institution. Such as the National Health Service. Afterall, we revere it, we even put it in our opening ceremonies. We just don't want to pay much for it. A play that was set in an NHS treatment centre, where sock puppets were used as part of a new (and cheaper) therapy. That could have shock value and make local audiences squirm for good reasons...
Hand to God runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until June.
Photo credit: Production photos by Robert Askins