Review - Hand To God (Vaudeville Theatre, London)

When Jason, a teenager grieving the passing of his father, makes himself a sock puppet companion named Tyrone, he only intends to use his new friend as a prop at a church group organised by his mother.  But all hell breaks look as Tyrone quickly develops a demonic mind of his own, and seems hell bent on turning his Jason's quiet, subordinate personality upside down. 

The comparisons with Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon which Hand To God garnered during it's award winning run on Broadway are understandable. The show features several hand and rod puppets doing very un-family friendly deeds a la Avenue Q, and raises important questions about our relationship with religion in much the same vein as The Book of Mormon. However, Hand To God feels totally different to both of these shows, and this is partly due to the fact that the emphasis is not placed on the puppets or the incessant blasphemy, but on the human relationships within the story. For a play with so many absurd moments of comedy, there were also several really strikingly touching moments, particularly in act 2. 

As Hand To God's central character(s), Harry Melling (who has well and truly shed the 'Harry Potter star' label, a feat which many of the show's other actors have yet to achieve) gives a wonderfully convincing performance. He is instantly personable as bumbling pushover teen protagonist Jason, but the vocal and physical performance presented when he brings satanic sock puppet Tyrone to life is really the most engrossing part of the show. In fact, some of the most impressive scenes are those in which Jason and Tyrone are alone on stage, and Melling showcases a skillful mastery of puppetry and physical comedy, frequently single handedly carrying the performance for several scenes at a time and effortlessly portraying both characters simultaneously. His performance is so affecting and multi-layered that it is impossible to tell whether Tyrone is really a possessed sock puppet at all, or really just an externalisation of Jason's grief and frustration. This is perhaps the most interesting idea posed to the audience in playwright Robert Askins' delightfully wicked dramedy. Janie Dee and Kevin Mains also share some brilliant scenes together as Jason's mother Margery and her trouble-making puppetry class student, and Neil Parson is hilarious as the exasperated Pastor Greg. Meanwhile, Jemima Rooper is endearing as Jason's classmate Jessica, but sadly she is slightly underused throughout the play.  

What I found most appealing about Hand To God was the fact that it featured consistent moments of comedic brilliance, and yet still felt like a slow burn, building towards a totally unpredictable finale. The plot itself raises so many meaningful and relevant questions that is impossible to write it off as just another raucous and gimmicky play designed purely to shock. Yes, it is completely outrageous, and also surprisingly a tiny bit terrifying, but every single absurd moment felt totally justified. In fact, given it's reputation, I was actually expecting Hand To God to be a bit more of a laugh-a-minute type play, but while the jokes came slightly less frequently that I was expecting, this in no way took away from my overall enjoyment of it. 

While it's certainly not for the easily offended, Hand To God really is an unmissable play. If your experience is anything like mine then you'll leave the theatre with your heart racing and a huge grin on your face! Startling and hysterically funny and yet surprisingly touching, it is one of the cleverest plays I've seen in a long time. 

Thanks to Stagedoor for organising a fantastic blogger event and being lovely enough to provide me with a ticket to see the show. I had a fantastic time! Find out more about the Stagedoor app here.