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Hand to God review at the Vaudeville Theatre, London – ‘dismal and distasteful’

Harry Melling in Hand to God at the Vaudeville Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Actors are often told to avoid working with animals and children, but as this so-called comedy shows they should also avoid working with sock puppets. Inexplicably transferring from Broadway to the West End, Hand to God is a play about going to hell with a hand puppet which is likely going to hell in a handbasket too.

The puppet is called Tyrone, and he exists at the end of the arm of Harry Melling’s Jason. He becomes the voice that the teenager lacks, allowing him to express some of his sexual frustrations and his resentment of authority figures, including his single-parent mother.

She’s running a sparsely attended puppet workshop in the local church hall, of which there are only two other members, Jemima Rooper’s buttoned-up Jessica and Kevin Mains’s Timothy, who is rather more unbuttoned – in every sense. 
Suddenly Tyrone takes on a scurrilous life and identity of his own. And if you find the idea of a puppet swearing liberally, throwing lots of insults around and eventually engaging in sex with another puppet hilarious, you may derive some pleasure from this dismal production.

It’s all pitched at a very juvenile level. Meanwhile, the sexual politics of the play, in which the mother surrenders to violent sex with the other teenage male after rejecting the advances of the local adult pastor, is also extremely questionable, if not to say actively distasteful. Playwright Robert Askins will no doubt claim that he is challenging taboos – but he’s simply parading stereotypes and peddling cliches.

The production is slow to ignite and quick to expire – there’s a lot of set-up and even more let-down. At one point the demonic possession unwittingly and unintentionally extends to Beowulf Boritt’s set, which froze in place during the first act on press night – unfortunately they managed to get it moving again.

A really fine cast of British actors are swallowed up by this drivel. Neil Pearson has a particularly thankless task as the shouty pastor, while Janie Dee, as Jason’s mother, has to surrender all dignity as her character urges her own sexual molestation. Harry Melling makes a good fist, so to speak, of Jason/Tyrone, though he is inevitably upstaged by the puppet.

I didn’t laugh once. In fact I sank further and further down into my seat and prayed for the hand of God to deliver me from it – but He couldn’t hear me above the surrounding din.

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Self-conscious, juvenile, and deeply unfunny Broadway transfer which feels completely at sea on the Strand