The recently widowed Margery (Amy Tarleton) is trying to regain her bearings by teaching puppetry in the basement of her local church. Her ‘class’ consists of three teenagers: the rambunctious bad-boy, Timothy (Jack Buchanan), the sweet and initially reserved Jessica (Hannah Banks), and her socially-awkward son, Jason (Tom Clarke). Pastor Greg (Peter Hambleton) informs Margery that her class will perform a puppet show at next Sunday’s service, presenting her with two problems. Firstly, the only one that’s any good at puppetry is Jason, and second, his adorable puppet, Tyrone (puppeteered by Clarke), isn’t exactly a godly puppet. As everything turns to shit, the others start to take Tyrone a little more seriously, and the true problems Jason and his mother are dealing with emerge.
What keeps Hand to God thoroughly entertaining, aside from it being well-written, are the spectacular performers. Tarleton is the standout for me; she wades through Margery’s struggle and plays her sinful down-spiral with such finesse the audience in stitches one minute, and full-blown tears the next. Her best moments are shared with other characters in duologue form, where she absolutely murders the scene. Whether it’s her ripping into the Pastor for his piss-poor pick-up attempts, or her ‘testing the waters’ with one of her students (I’ll leave out the details), I can’t take my eyes off her commanding performance.
Jessica is a character who initially files under the radar. We don’t pay a lot of attention to her early in the play, but Jessica becomes the voice of reason among the chaos. Banks surprises us when she modulates between the reserved young girl and evolving into a confident and the uninhibited problem solver because she plays the quieter side of Jessica so well: she is a silent assassin among the cast. We never forget about Banks and her character because of her performance; I don’t think Jessica could be placed in more capable hands.
Timothy is the kind of character you’ll hate, and then love… well, sort of. He’s poorly-behaved, incredibly rude, and fills the Southern redneck stereotype (flannel shirt and all). But Buchanan brings out the softer facets of Timothy’s character too, which help to make the character slightly less of an asshole and even more humorous. Buchanan doesn’t take Timothy too seriously and that means we don’t have to either, balancing Timothy’s melodrama, hyper-masculinity, and stupidity.
Pastor Greg’s failure at wooing Margery subverts the expected role of him as her future love interest — a sight I am more than happy to witness. Hambleton’s performance marries helplessness and guidance, which helps convey the Pastor’s status and evident loneliness. Hambleton plays moments of mentorship well, especially when it’s clear someone is in need of advice. Except for Timothy. They don’t get along at all... You’ll have to see the show to find out why.
Clarke’s handling of Jason, by far the most complex of the characters, on top of puppeteering Tyrone, is exceptional. The two are polar opposites: Jason is submissive, soft-spoken, and shy, while Tyrone is abrasive, aggressive, and anarchic. Clarke’s clear characterisation keeps Tyrone and Jason distinct, both physically and vocally, and thus, he always deserves his spotlight. Often when Clarke embodies Tyrone, I forget the puppeteer’s physical body is even there as I’m totally immersed in what Tyrone is gesturing to and who he’s beating down now. Here, I must congratulate puppet designer and constructor Jon Coddington for his phenomenal work with Tyrone. He’s one of the cutest puppets I’ve ever seen with his green skin, big eyes, and stringy orange hair, but boy does he have the mouth of a sailor! The antithesis does wonders for both characters and the show itself.
Director Lyndee-Jane Rutherford makes use of the available stage space by toying with distance and proximity. Whether they be side-by-side or at opposing ends of the stage, this distance helps the stage remain active and helps keep the conversations absorbing. There comes a moment early on after we first meet Jason and his companions, where he and Jessica sit on a bench during lunch, drinking Coca-Cola. The exchange is awkward, but it’s clear each harbours a ‘more than friends’ kind of feeling. Jason and Jessica are inches apart until Tyrone’s innocent intrusion gyrates their endearing banter into revealing Jason’s sinful secrets: “Who do you think he thinks about when he touches himself?” Another is an ‘intimate’ moment between Tyrone and his puppet friend, Jolene (puppeteered by Banks); I’m sure you can imagine how close the puppeteers might be at this point. They feel awkward and we feel awkward — but it is a good kind of awkward, and one that twiddling with the space between the two characters helps highlight.
Rutherford’s direction maintains a fast but exciting rhythm. There’s enough balance between the comedic and serious moments that shifting from one tone to the other doesn’t jar the audience or make it any less engaging. Although, I do lose interest in the show’s final scene where it slows right down to focus on Jason’s bottled feelings. This sudden shift only turns me away because the scene drags along slowly and stands out as the only scene at this snail-pace. It’s as if Clarke hits his ‘peak’ too early, which leaves him unable to build the tension further, plateauing the scene instead of modulating it. I become a little uncomfortable for the wrong reasons and I'm no longer feel invested in any other comedy the show serves up. So, thankfully, this occurs at the end and not any earlier, and hopefully, this will iron out as the season progresses.
The design for Hand to God is a spectacle in its own right. Ian Harman’s set design gives off Sunday school vibes; brightly coloured walls caked with Biblical verses and Jesus-friendly creations. The pristine state the stage begins in makes the degradation it endures throughout the play all the more hilarious. Jennifer Lal’s lighting design helps accentuate the control shifting from Pastor Greg and Margery to Jason and Tyrone with illumination by stage-light and near-darkness lit almost solely by candlelight. Much of the audience (myself included) is particularly inspired by Mohekey’s sound design. The energy from the heavy guitar riffs and booming drum beats of her song choices fuel us just as much as the performers, and this magnifies the fun all parties are having even further.
This production of Hand to God is tonnes of fun, super energetic, and absolutely bonkers thanks to the skilled cast, careful direction, hilarious script, and cohesive design. While I found some of the show’s final moments dissatisfying, the rest is more than makes up for this last-minute shortcoming. Hand to God, in all its profane, obscene, and vulgar glory, is one hell of a good time.
Hand to God’s season runs until Saturday 20 May at Circa Theatre. You can visit Circa’s website for ticketing and show information.