I had no idea what to expect as I sat down to watch the play hailed as ‘Sesame Street meets the exorcist’ and to be honest, I’m still not quite sure what to make of Hand to God.
Robert Askins’ Broadway hit features Jason (Harry Melling), a gawky teenager who has mastered the art of sock puppetry through his church puppet group. His recently bereaved mother Margery (Janie Dee), who runs the group, does so because she ‘can’t sing, preach or bake brownies.’ Inspiring young people is a welcome distraction and a helpful coping mechanism, which morphs into an awful mistake as her confused feelings lead to a disturbing affair with bad-boy teenager Timothy (Kevin Mains). Timothy, Jason and Margery are joined at puppet club by girl-next-door Jessica (Jemima Rooper) and occasionally Pastor Greg (Neil Pearson) who encourages the group, while attempting to woo its leader.
The play assumes a terrifying twist when Jason’s hand puppet, Tyrone takes on a life of his own, announcing that he is devil-possessed and wreaking havoc on the group. Jason is simultaneously liberated and tormented by his puppet but torment triumphs as Jason is overwhelmed by the horror being unleashed through the satanic character at the end of his arm. Harry Melling spectacularly presents the battle between Jason and Tyron, concurrently playing the awkward teenager and overbearing puppet. The horrific battle culminates in a literal bloody mess as Jason forcibly removes Tyrone in a moment reminiscent of the biblical mandate to cut off an offending hand (Matthew 5).
Be warned, one of the more disconcerting, if embarrassingly comical, moments of the play involves a protracted puppet sex scene! Sure, Avenue Q has been there before but here, amidst unsettling puppet activity at the end of their arms, is a sweet interaction where Jessica gently challenges Jason to get rid of his alter-ego Tyrone and just be himself. The scene may be unnecessarily crude but the juxtaposition of raw animalistic puppet behaviour and gentle human conversation makes the latter interaction even more striking.
The affair between Margery and Timothy, while deeply alarming, is at times darkly comical but, as one commentator notes, it would not be at all amusing if genders were reversed. The troubling nature of both the affair itself and its violent outworking demonstrates the depth of Margery’s despair and the danger of her unaddressed grief. At one point, Margery rips pages out of Pastor Greig’s bible, cursing and swearing at God as she does so. It is a disturbing scene, evidenced by the audience’s collective gasp but it doesn’t feel gratuitous or blasphemous. Rather, it is the reaction of a grief-stricken woman at the end of herself.
Puppets are obviously a core element of Hand to God – Tyrone the anti-hero quickly becomes a co-star. While at times the puppets take on an almost Brechtian function, urging the audience to detach themselves from the action to think through the deeper meaning behind the play, they also simultaneously draw you in because of their spectacular mastery. So compelling is Melling’s performance that it’s easy to forget you are watching one actor, playing both puppet and puppet master, which of course is intentional: within one teenager lies a propensity for both good and evil, the line is blurred and the two natures irrevocably intertwined. Again, a glaring biblical comparison springs to mind, ‘what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ (Romans 7)
At times, religion felt like a periphery issue; providing merely a setting rather than an integral element of the story. However, the prologue and epilogue set it within a clear agnostic framework, aggressively suggesting that both God and the devil are manmade constructs and that any sort of battle between good and evil is merely internal and individual. A strict religious upbringing clearly informed (and possibly even provided the motivation for) the play, which is strangely biographical. Writer Robert Askins’ mother ran a puppet group in his childhood Texan church and, like Jason, Askins’ father died when he was a teenager.
Hand to God has been labelled ‘profoundly irreligious’, ‘heretical’, and ‘blasphemous’ but I don’t think that is either the case or the intention. The play is probably best avoided if you are easily offended but dark comedies like this one are often incredibly thought-provoking. There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy and there were times when I found myself laughing and squirming simultaneously and then reflecting on why I had done so. One such reason was that it implicitly exposed the weaknesses of the Church. In interviews, Askins has spoken about his experience of bereavement and of feeling alienated by his childhood church and some of this pain seems to have written itself into the play. Hand to God should serve as a stark reminder to Christians of how to react in the face of grief. Margery and Jason should have been better supported by their church; they should have been loved, comforted (without any creepy intentions) and covered with grace and prayer. It is also a prompt to churches to properly support their youth and children’s workers, putting clear boundaries in place to protect both them and their young people.
What Hand to God does do however, is grossly misunderstand and misrepresent the character of God. There is no understanding of a loving God who actively welcomes doubt and seeks to bring peace to a tortured soul. Here, the only solution is either violent exorcism or to take matters into your own hands, physically chopping away unwanted character traits. There is also little recognition of a forgiving God – Askins instead awards that accolade to the human characters within the play who are reconciled largely through their forgiveness. Nor is there any acknowledgement of a God who liberates – in Hand to God, it is only rebellion which brings such sought after freedom. It is little wonder that the play is framed within such an a-religious worldview if Askins’ tyrant god is the alternative – I wouldn’t believe in that god either!
Some of the characters in Hand to God are undeveloped and the prologue and epilogue feel shoe-horned in. The script is, at times, unnecessarily vulgar but it certainly makes you question what your own battles might be and how you could best support those struggling around you. The stage elements are excellent – the lighting and set add immense value to both the story and the comedy. Even with its flaws, Hand to God may be worth watching purely for Harry Melling’s performance – he is, quite frankly, remarkable and worlds away from Harry Potter’s chubby bumbling cousin Dudley!
A shorter version of this review was published on Christianity Magazine’s blog