13th February, 2016, matinee
There are a few contemporary American plays which use the death of a family member as a starting point, from David Auburn’s Proof (2000), to David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole (2006) and Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (2007). Robert Askins’ 2011 play Hand to God, which has opened in London after its Broadway run, has at its heart a story of a mother and son (not) coping with the death of their husband and father respectively. Whereas on one hand it is an unsophisticated and bawdy play which lacks depth, on the other it is an often-hilarious exploration of repressive desires that is a kick in the teeth to its contemporaries.
Margery, recently widowed and struggling to find purpose in her life, is running a puppetry class at her local church’s Sunday school: ‘without my husband’, she says, ‘I don’t know who I am’. She’s sexually deprived and both the local pastor and one of her delinquent students have eyes on her. Meanwhile, her son Jason uses a sock puppet (called Tyrone) to express his feelings, a puppet which brings mayhem to his world. This device cleverly allows Jason to express whatever comes in to his mind, those things which he either can’t articulate or that he knows he shouldn’t articulate. Through this concept, Askins has effectively achieved a way of presenting a character’s inner thoughts at the same time as their external awkwardness is on show. Harry Melling (Jason/Tyrone) does a superb job at capturing Jason’s shyness and emotional stiltedness at the same time as evoking Tyrone’s uninhibited personality. He brings the puppet to life, in both voice and body, with a sense of humour not far off Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin. I imagine it’s difficult for two performers to perform a variation on the Albert and Costello ‘Who/What’ vaudeville routine, but Melling remarkably pulls off performing both parts. But Melling maintains Tyrone’s strange duality in that it’s so separate from Jason but also so closely a part of him too, expertly shown in a moment where Tyrone stops Jason from sleeping by flailing his arms in Jason’s eyes.
Soon enough, Jason finds out that the more confident Timothy (a fine performance from Kevin Mains) has slept with his mum, which leads the usually meek Jason (through the sock mouth of Tyrone) to make Timothy’s ear bleed leading the other characters thinking that Jason has been possessed by Tyrone who has announced that he is Satan. The play is partly a satire on religion and how we still live our life by ancient rules. ‘When I have acted badly, Tyrone says in the prologue, ‘all I have to do is say…the devil made me do it’. But even though this adds an interesting layer to Hand to God, I feel that the play is stronger when focusing on the domestic unrest at its centre.
I, along with the rest of the lively audience, laughed a lot at Moritz Von Stuelpnagel’s bold production. Indeed, there are a lot of laughs (although some of them are contrived or fall flat) in Tyrone’s long and varied sex scene, and Margery’s masochistic foreplay with Timothy but you wonder whether Askins is just wringing his subject matter for laughs. But the play achieves an emotional climax as Jason painfully relinquishes himself from Tyrone. This touch of sentiment is a reminder that the play’s shenanigans are grounded in an emotional situation which we care about.
Askins’ play is far from subtle. Indeed, the sketch-like scenes are often too short to let the characters grow and the jokes can come at the expense of some the plotting (Timothy’s age for instance isn’t really made clear until act two and thus the seriousness of Margery sleeping with him is overshadowed). However, humour seems to take precedent in Hand to God, and Beowulf Boritt’s colourful, impressive set reflects its energy. But what is admirable about the play is how Askins gives the story of a troubled mother and son much weight. In two short but significant scenes (which require mighty scene changes that take us to a car and bedroom), we hear more about their fractured relationship and Jason’s dad’s being miserable. For that, and the play’s near-constant ability to entertain, it is understandable why this play has earned its own little success story.
Janie Dee is excellent as Margery, showing the character’s depths but also bringing out a lot of the character’s comedy. Neil Pearson and Jemima Rooper add strong support in quite frankly thankless roles as the Pastor and Jason’s crush respectively, and John Leonard’s sound design give a filmic quality to the piece. This is an excellent new comedy worthy of its place in the West End.
Hand to God runs at the Vaudeville until 11th June, 2016.