Hand to God, Vaudeville Theatre, review: ‘Frequently funny but not to everyone’s taste’

PUBLISHED: 17:49 02 March 2016 | UPDATED: 10:17 03 March 2016

Harry Melling (Jason) and Tyrone in Hand To God by Robert Askins at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Harry Melling (Jason) and Tyrone in Hand To God by Robert Askins at the Vaudeville Theatre.

©Tristram Kenton

Move over, Avenue Q: there’s a new puppet in town.

Flame-haired, foul-mouthed Tyrone, star of Robert Askins’ semi-autobiographical farce, is a nightmarish creation, but a necessary release for cowed Texas teen Jason, struggling with the death of his father. Mother Margery focuses on Christian puppet ministry rather than addressing their grief, but the diversionary tactic fails when Tyrone switches from Bible stories to voicing Jason’s repressed feelings: lust for fellow student Jessica and anger at his hypocritical authority figures.

As Tyrone’s sentience grows into an Exorcist-like reign of terror that includes exploded lights and crucified Barbies, it’s ascribed to Satanic possession. But Askins astutely points out the danger of evading responsibility by externalising our demons. Religion’s collective morality often means passing judgement on difficult behaviour, instead of acknowledging a cry for help.

However, rather than digging deeper into these ideas, Askins goes bigger, brasher and bloodier with each cartoonish set piece – frequently hilarious in Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s high-voltage production, but selling short his characters and serious issues like mental illness.

Practising Christian Janie Dee connects with Margery’s crisis of faith, and Kevin Mains is endearing as horndog adolescent Timothy, though the physical comedy of their illicit hook-up needs refining. Neil Pearson’s lonely pastor and Jemima Rooper’s sensible Jessica, whose nymphet puppet resembles Dolly Parton, are nicely grounded but underused. This is Melling’s show, and his technically accomplished rendition of the “Dr Jekyll and Miss Piggy” split personality is phenomenal – a tragicomic tour de force.

There are production niggles to address, like inconsistent accents and Beowulf Boritt’s revolving set, which stalled on press night. Askins’ scattershot puerility won’t be to everyone’s taste, but beneath the graphic surface is a heartfelt exhortation to voice our problems and find the help we need.

3/5 stars.

Hand to God runs at Vaudeville Theatre until June 11.


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