Hand to God

Apr 10 2019 | By More

★★★★☆  Hot puppet action

Assembly Roxy: Tue 9 – Sat 13 April 2019
Review by Thom Dibdin

Packed with expletives and hot puppet-on-puppet action, EGTG’s thoroughly entertaining production of Robert Askin’s Hand to God at the Assembly Roxy is not for the faint hearted.

Indeed, the script goes a step or three further than Avenue Q in terms of being outrageous in its puppet use. David Grimes’ strong direction brings the full force of that on to the stage, even though the script’s failings are not quite glossed over.

Lori Flannigan with Gordon Houston and Hannah Fitzpatrick. Pic: Robert Michael Wilson

In Pastor Greg’s church basement in Texas, Margery is trying to come to terms with the recent death of her husband by throwing herself into a puppet ministry for teenage kids, attended by her son Jason, tearaway Timothy and Jessica, whose thing is really shadow puppets.

Grimes creates this house of disfunction with real care over a first half which builds from a controversy-seeking opening monologue up to explosive situation after explosive situation, with a superb sense of pace and attention to comic detail.

The key is that he gets his cast to achieve a commendable realism to their characters, ensuring that their increasingly close-to-the-bone interactions never feel outrageous. The development of the puppets’ characters is equally smooth and the hugely difficult scenes depicting sex and violence are perfectly realised.

The whole production coalesces round Margery, who Lori Flannigan makes a beautifully complex character. There is a slightly tremulous air to her which comes from a desperately hurt place, but all masked by a focussed and commanding woman.

ghastly creepiness

The other grownup in the room is Oliver Cookson’s rather pathetic Pastor Greg, who sees Marjory as a wounded thing that needs to be cared for. “Thing” being the operative word. Their relationship is painted with such realism that its ghastly creepiness sends a shiver up the spine.

Hannah Fitzpatrick and Gordon Houston with Tyrone. Pic: Robert Michael Wilson

The three teenagers have that complex mix of gauche and brash which inflicts those moving from childhood into maturity. Brash in their childish relationships, gauche when they attempt to pull on the cloak of adulthood and say something of consequence to each other.

Steven Croall does an excellent job as Timothy, talking the adult talk in his attempts to stand up to Marjory, but not knowing how to walk the walk.

Gordon Houston as Jason and Hannah Fitzpatrick as Jessica have a slight tendency to over-do the gaucheness in their interaction, but their timing is spot on as Jason and Jessica try to work out how to say how they feel for each other. But it is when they are interacting as their puppets, his Tyrone and her Jolene, that the sparks – amongst other things – fly.

And it is Houston’s turn as Jason and Tyrone which is the outstanding performance of the piece. As the relationship between the two changes and you begin to wonder who is the puppet and who has control, Houston’s conversations between the two are executed with precision and consistency, ensuring that you always know which one is talking.

Extra depths

EGTG’s design department have excelled themselves. Assistant director Angela Harkness Robertson’s puppet design and costumes are masterful, the puppets providing a glimpse of how their owners would see themselves, the costumes revealing extra depths to the characters.

Gordon Houston and Lori Flannigan. Pic: Robert Michael Wilson

Chris Allan’s set has a couple of wobbly moments, but the solutions he finds for several quick changes in scene are very well executed and, when called on for some completely unexpected special effects, it delivers everything you would want. Helped by J Gordon Hughes’ equally clever lighting and Gillian Burnett’s props and set dressing.

This is more than comedy, however. There’s something quite specific being said about children, grownups and how they interact. Where Avenue Q played with new adults discovering that they are not so special after all, Hand to God looks at what happens when adults – both parents and pastors – do not see the children in their care as special.

It’s here that Grimes gives this a bigger twist than the surface shock effects. There is an understanding of the individual characters here, which makes their situation have a universal relevance.

Sadly the company is undone by a script which under-achieves in its second half. More than once, Askin assembles characters in a room for good and logical plot reasons, but without knowing why he has them there in terms of what he wants to do with them – apart from holding our breaths for another bout of outrage. And this is a production which deserves something a lot more nuanced than that.

Such longueurs are quickly forgotten, however, as the subsequent bouts of outrage do deliver in terms of shock. A strong and vibrant production of a play that isn’t always sure of what it is trying to do.

Running time one hour and 45 minutes, including one interval
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU.
Tuesday 9 – Saturday 13 April 2019
Tue – Thurs, Sat: 8pm (no show Fri 12).
Tickets and details: Book here.

Tyrone with Steven Croall and Gordon Houston. Pic Robert Michael Wilson


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