Hand to God tells the story of a recently widowed Texan, Margery, and her efforts to set up a puppetry club in her local church. It doesn’t quite go according to plan: her son Jason’s sock puppet becomes possessed – biting off one of the other member’s ears and transforming the quiet church playroom into a den of iniquity and sin. Meanwhile Margery embarks on a lusty affair with a teenager and dramatically denounces her faith in front of the affable Pastor Greg – ripping pages out of a bible.
Hand to God is, then, cashing in on the success of Avenue Q and the Book of Mormon with an improbable blend of puppetry and blasphemy. And the production very much conforms to that model: directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel with a new cast following the success of his Tony award nominated Broadway version, it’s a slick operation: save for an unfortunate press night glitch (for which someone somewhere must be having a miserable Tuesday) it’s all executed pretty impeccably.
Plenty of people will find this play offensive, crass and obvious. And it probably is. Evangelism is an easy target – and the bigotry this play espouses by revelling in its profanity is probably just as unsettling as the moral absolutism it supposedly sets itself against. Try saying the same things about Islam or Sikhism and see if you don’t end up feeling cheap and lousy.
Which is a pity. Because the acting in this show is great. Who knew that Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter films) was such a talented comic actor? This will sound excessive – but I can’t think of many occasions when I’ve seen someone exhibit such technical skill (manipulating and conversing with his own hand – which comes with greater challenges than you might imagine) whilst also being that effortlessly watchable. Janie Dee, Neil Pearson, Jemima Rooper and Kevin Mains are all also very strong.
It’s a strange play – veering between being about the trauma of grief, the blindness of faith, and the irrepressible nature of desire, and never really saying anything original on any of these subjects. But I think it’s sure to be popular – it’s funny, and it never stops being entertaining. And any faults are redeemed by the skill and verve of its excellent cast.