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A CurtainUp London London Review
Hand to God

"I got empty arms and ears just made to hear you cry!" — Pastor Greg
Hand to God
Harry Melling as Jason with Tyrone (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
If you loved Avenue Q but wished it had been even more sexually explicit then Hand to God may well be the show for you. As I arrived at the Vaudeville Theatre, a producer said to me "It's not at all blasphemous!" He was being ironic. Fortunately blasphemy doesn't offend me as much as some of the crueler mortal sins but religious hypocrisy does. So anything that sends up the sanctimonious religious zealot is welcome in a drama.

Set in a Bible study class run by Margery (Janie Dee) three teenagers have been tasked with making a glove puppet for a puppet performance which is designed to make God more accessible. The play opens with Tyrone's soliloquy (voiced by Jason, son of Margery and played by Harry Melling) giving an irreligious sermon in a puppet booth. Tyrone has a delightful way with words and the jokes come thick and fast.

We meet the three teenagers in the group; problem child Timothy (Kevin Mains) who is abusive to the other two in an outrageous way, deriding the remarkably flat chested Jessica (Jemima Rooper) with sexually explicit invective and bullying Jason. Margery tells us that she has been a widow for six months and misses her husband. Enter the mealy mouthed and salacious Pastor Greg (Neil Pearson) who tries to talk Margery into dating him. Jason is finding that his glove puppet Tyrone has a personality all of his own with no socializing inhibition. We are starting to think split personality when his mother finds her dark side with a penchant for rough sex with, no, not the pastor but her pupil Timothy. Safeguarding issues here aplenty! Maybe the alter egos are in the genes?

I started to think about the power of improvisation using another personality, here a glove puppet to enable children to express the unacceptable. Jason is missing his father. It reminded me of a staff training exercise at the day job using Lego where people were encouraged to illustrate what was important to them and what was difficult, through a model made of the building bricks. The results were interesting as people used the bricks to tell us things normally hidden and unexpressed.

What makes this show remarkable, and for me, enjoyable, is not the script but the skill of the performances. We know Janie Dee is a brilliant comedian but Harry Melling's (once the Dursley child in the Harry Potter films) ability to voice Jason in conversation with Tyrone on his left hand is pure delight. Besides the expressive mouth and wild red hair, Tyrone has arms on sticks and when he needs to get Jason's attention he will hold Jason's head and stare directly at him. We were convinced a separate personality was at work here. The puppetry is so good, I wished it was less explicit so children could see the show without being deprived of their innocence.

Hand to God comes in at under two hours with an interval and that interval is necessary for the devilish makeover of the church based classroom which generates an applause all of its own. Tyrone fights Timothy with a near van Gogh outcome. The sets are realistic and detailed. The puppetry climax comes as Jessica's puppet seduces Tyrone, both humans standing impassively and blank faced while their hands get up to no end of hanky panky. They must have read the Kama Sutra for puppets!
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Hand to God
by Robert Askins
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Starring: Janie Dee, Harry Melling, Jemima Rooper, Neil Pearson, Kevin Mains
Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costumes: Sydney Maresca
Puppet Design: Marte Ekhougen
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: One hour 55 minutes with an interval
Box Office 0844 482 9675
Booking to 11th June 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th February 2016 performance at the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, London WC2R 0NH
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