Review: Hand to God socks audiences with an edgy, witty and truly original show

If you like a play with bite, then Hand to God is just the ticket. Recently making its West End debut, the show features a foul-mouthed sock puppet named Tyrone, who’s bursting with comical and irreverent energy.

Set in a small town in Texas, Hand to God mostly takes place in the basement of a church where a puppet ministry meets. Themes of religion and questions of faith run rampant in the plot. Although these puppets were intended for Christian education, some of them have developed minds of their own that are anything but devout.

The human characters in Hand to God are wildly funny too. Double Olivier Award-winning actress Janie Dee stars as Margery, an attractive widow whose husband died from overeating. She runs the soul-searching youth puppet group.

Harry Melling, best known for playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, has the formidable task of playing Margery’s troubled son Jason as well as Tyrone, the aforementioned devilish grey sock puppet with a tuft of red hair. Melling handles the split-personality performance brilliantly, especially in scenes where the pair is engaged in rapid-fire conversation.

British TV and film staple Neil Pearson appears as Pastor Greg, who not-so-secretly lusts after Margery while spouting pieties like “have a blessed day”. Rounding out the cast are Kevin Mains and Jemima Rooper, the only other members of the puppet ministry. Both are hilarious in their roles of Timothy, a delinquent lad with the hots for Margery, and Jessica, a girl on whom Jason has a crush. 

Hand to God got its start about five years ago with a reading in a tiny off-Broadway theatre before becoming a Broadway hit and earning five Tony Award nominations. Playwright Robert Askins drew upon his own evangelical upbringing and experiences with his mum in a church puppet ministry to create the dark comedy.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel has done a masterful job of melding the fire-and-brimstone tone with puppetry onstage. In Hand to God, the cast utilise sock puppets that have arms controlled by rods. This allows for a variety of gestures and situations – particularly when repressed feelings and personal struggles come into the spotlight – that are sure to surprise you.

Intelligent and at times provocative, Hand to God is praiseworthy on many levels. Based on the enthusiastic crowd response, it offers a divinely entertaining evening for UK theatregoers.

Book tickets for Hand to God now, currently booking at London’s Vaudeville Theatre until 11 June 2016.