Broadway producer Kevin McCollum was responsible for the original off-Broadway to Broadway transfer of Avenue Q, a musical starring puppets (and featuring a sex scene between two of them) that is still running in New York now (but back off-Broadway again), that scooped the Tony Award for Best Musical away from Wicked back in 2003. So it's hardly surprising that he spotted a winner when Hand to God, a play that again features copulating puppets, opened off-off Broadway in 2011. He duly moved it to Broadway and now here it is in the West End, co-produced by him with West End theatre owner Nica Burns.
But lightning hasn't struck twice. After the initial novelty of puppets onstage voicing adult emotions and lusts, Hand to God soon loses its appeal — not to mention is shock value. It just gets louder and louder, dumber and more violent.
There may be a darker purpose at work, which is to show how a repressed teenager boy — whose father has died and Christian mother is struggling to cope — channels his real thoughts and desires though an outrageously outspoken glove puppet that he can't quite control…. nor wants to. His puppet self Tyrone has license to do the things he can't: chat up girls, stand up to bullies, have sex and bite off people's ears. Yes, you read that right: the show gets pretty violent.
Meanwhile his upright, uptight mother is similarly liberated, demanding rough sex from one of the other teenagers in the puppet workshop she runs in a church hall, and where all of this demented activity unfolds.
Lots of people around me found this all irresistibly funny. I didn't crack a single smile, but like some many others in my vicinity, too, sat in stupefied silence. It is, in other words, a show that is going to divide people right down the middle.
There's no denying, however, the undoubted skill with which the poor actors play it. In particular, Harry Melling — best known from his film appearances as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter series — is touching as the troubled boy whose glove puppet gives me an outlet for outrageous expression, though he makes no attempt at ventriloquism when voicing the puppet. And the wonderful Janie Dee becomes deliciously abandoned as she surrenders to the attentions of Kevin Mains's Timothy.
There's also good work from Neil Pearson as the local priest and Jemima Rooper as another participant of the puppet workshop who becomes the object of Jason/Tyrone's attentions.
"If one is seeking comedy about possession by an anarchic puppet, one might find more laughs in Rod Hull and Emu."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Tonally it’s all over the place, leaving us feeling a murky combination of unsettled and dispirited. The only hope of salvation for Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production is for the five actors to go at this muddle with terrific energy and manic conviction and this, to their credit, they do."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Hand to God is a totally bonkers piece of theatre. It’s violent, blasphemous, obscene, puerile and sweaty. Oh, and it’s absolutely hilarious."
Tony Peters for Radio Times
External links to full reviews from popular press