ROBERT ASKINS, the Texan-born author of the play Hand to God, has had personal experience of puppet ministry. “We would meet on Wednesday in the fellowship hall,” he recalls of this childhood church group. Askins’s mother was one of the organisers; the scripts came from “a believer in an office in Omaha”, and the “creepy” puppets were “ordered from a kit with removable eyes and shapeable hair”. The aim was to try “to make the mysteries fun”: “They were trying to make a sacred thing soft. I don’t know if that ever works.”
Hand to God, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, enlarges on those experiences to farcical effect. Jason (played by Harry Melling) is the boy with the increasingly outspoken glove puppet, Tyrone, that starts to assert a subversive will of its own. Jason’s mother, Margery (Janie Dee, cast against wholesome type), is the organiser of the puppetry project as a whole, at the church of Pastor Greg (Neil Pearson), who makes a pass at her; she is more bluntly desired by one of her teenage puppeteers, Timothy (Kevin Mains). The group is completed by the bespectacled Jessica (Jemima Rooper), who has little to do, late in the play, but what she does brings down the house.
Or, so far, several houses: the play has just transferred to the West End of London from Broadway (after its unexpected transfer to Broadway from off-Broadway, where it was premièred in 2011). It has had a decidedly mixed reception from the English press, partly because it doesn’t seem the finished article. Only Tyrone and Margery feel as if they are anything more than plot devices, and, while there is no shortage of inventive single entendres, Tyrone jerks suddenly from being merely loud-mouthed and obnoxious to convincing everybody that he is essentially satanic, not long after Margery has just as abruptly given into a raging passion with Timothy.
Both transitions are, in their different ways, destructive of the church’s basement, where the puppetry sessions take place. The audience loves all this: the violent sex gets a round of applause. A chief point of reference here, however, is a 40-year-old horror film, The Exorcist. Not so shocking, really. Pastor Greg, meanwhile, declares that he wants to see the puppets put on a show for the congregation; this announcement turns out to be completely redundant.
Fortunately, the whole thing is performed with a terrific, door-slamming, cussword-dropping energy, not least by Melling, who has a lot of stage time talking, as it were, to his own hand, and there is a bloodily effective climax — it is only a shame that it is energy expended on underdeveloped characters and loose ends.
At the outset, the audience is lectured (by a puppet, of course) on the origins of good and evil — and on the devil, brought into being as a means of shifting the blame for our actions on to an immutable force beyond our control. In theatrical terms, that notion at least offers a suitable parallel to Melling’s brilliant way with the dialogues between Jason and Tyrone — to his separation of bewildered boy and blasphemous, deadpan puppet. In an imperfect play, it is a splendidly comic case of keeping the devil at arm’s length.
At the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, London WC2. Box office: phone 0330 333 4814.