28 February 2018

Review: Hand to God

Hand to God
Alexander Vass and Vass Production 
24 February 2018
The Alex Theatre
to 18 March
alextheatrestk.com.au

Hand To God. Morgana O'Reilly & Gyton Grantley. Photo by Angelo Leggas

Hand to God was nominated for a pile of Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Play (which was won by The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-time; which has just finished at MTC). Set in conservative, religious, small-town Texas, its success depends on a balance between its story of personal trauma and God-fearing repression, and the freedom of its God-damning, adults-only language and puppet-fucking irreverence. Yes, it's another Broadway show where puppets have raunchy sex – and it is regularly (and unfairly) compared to Avenue Q.

It's also regularly called "irreverent", and the focus on the naughtiness of being rude may be why this production hasn't found its emotional strength or empathy.

Recently widowed middle-aged Margery (Alison Whyte) is running a puppet workshop for teenagers in the her church hall. The only kids are her quiet son Jason (Gyton Grantley), bad-boy Timothy (Jake Speer), and pretty nerd Jessica (Morgana O'Reilly). The class is an inevitable failure but bumbling Pastor Gregory (Grant Piro) wants an in-church performance, Timothy has a super crush on Margery, and Jason will never tell Jessica that he likes her – until he's fist-deep in his puppet Tyrone.

Demonic possession, inappropriate sex and blashphemous abandon follow. There are plenty of laughs, but many fall flat. The fast-paced direction (Gary Abrahams) revels in jokes, but it tends to play the joke rather than tell the story. And when it is telling the story, it isn't clear what it's really about.

Deep laughs – even the most inappropriate ones – come from feeling connection to character and caring about what happens to them; laughing at potty-mouthed idiots is easy, and forgettable. With a severely-traumatised child, deep grief, and unexpected heroes, there's plenty to make the audience care, especially as the tone shifts in the second half and it becomes clear what's really at stake.

Meanwhile, there's still plenty to laugh at and the tone is set by the wit and fun of the design, by Jacob Battista (design), Chloe Greaves (costime) and Amelia Lever-Devidson (lighting). When the curtain opens, it initially looks so much like a hideously familiar church hall that it takes a while to notice the gorgeously hilarious detail (read the posters, look at the costumes) and it comes into its own with a stage-within-the-stage-within-the-stage.

The shock and laughs in Hand To God don't come from its blasphemy or sex but from from wondering if we, too, would behave like that if our life took a similar turn. I suspect that this side of the production will develop as it runs and finds its connection to its audience.

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