Review: Hand to God at the Alex Theatre

Reuben Liversidge

A combination of The Muppets and The Exorcist with a healthy dose of The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q thrown in for good measure.
Review: Hand to God at the Alex Theatre

Image Credit: Angel Leggas

Hand to God is a black comedy written by Robert Askins about a young boy called Jason and his demonically possessed hand puppet. Yes, you read that correctly. This politically incorrect social satire has played both Broadway and the West End and now it’s Melbourne’s turn to spend some time with the ‘good’ Christian folks of Cypress, Texas as they battle the foul-mouthed and blasphemously dirty Tyrone.

Margery (Alison Whyte) is a recently widowed wife and mother to teenager Jason (Gyton Grantley). While struggling to keep everything together, she runs a puppetry class for kids at the local Lutheran church. Shy and awkward Jason seems to have a talent for performing with his homemade puppet Tyrone, however it soon becomes clear that his creation has a mind of its own. Tyrone quickly takes over Jason’s life and begins to wreak havoc at the church. What ensues is a riotous combination of The Muppets and The Exorcist with a healthy dose of The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q thrown in for good measure.

Askins is clearly out to shock his audience with Hand to God; there are filthy jokes about everything from religion to sex to puberty and the script is littered with coarse language. However, this reviewer didn’t find any of the content particularly gasp-inducing and although a few laughs were had I ultimately felt like I was watching an extended episode of South Park or Family Guy. Even though the comedy is not as shocking as it could be, or maybe once was a few years ago, director Gary Abrahams keeps the action rollicking along and gets the best out of his wonderful cast. The later moments with Whyte and Grantley are unexpectedly poignant and the graphic puppet sex scene in act two is absolutely uproarious.

Grantley turns in a terrific performance as Jason. His mastery of the puppetry and split personalities is brilliant and he makes the audience really care about Jason’s insane predicament. It must be an exhausting job but Grantley makes it look easy.

It’s a joy to see Whyte in a rare comedic role on stage and she wholeheartedly embraces Margery’s unhinged nature. Whyte brings a depth of humanity to the character that might not be easily discernible in another actor’s hands but is absolutely essential in order for the audience to understand why Margery makes the somewhat questionable decisions she does. She seems to be having a ball on stage and her energy is infectious.

The supporting cast assembled for this production is fantastic. Grant Piro channels Ned Flanders in his very funny performance as Pastor Greg. He absolutely nails the Southern accent and brings out all of the awkward sleaziness in the role. Morgana O’Reilly takes a while to warm up to her role as Jason’s crush Jessica, but she comes alive in act two, and Jake Speer’s performance as Timothy is full of teenage horniness and sociopathic danger.

The design team have done an admirable job with the set design for Hand to God. The main setting is the church recreation room, complete with shelves of toys, ventilation piping and a small stage area. The script requires some challenging stage effects; lights flicker, shelves are smashed, smoke seeps in and the whole stage is extensively vandalised at one point. All of these moments occur seamlessly and are perfectly timed with the story taking place on stage; it’s a wonderful technical achievement. The music and lighting design helps maintain a sense of creepiness throughout the show, reminding the audience of the supernatural events taking place.

It has to be said that the Alex Theatre is it not the ideal venue for a theatrical production. This refurbished cinema has poor sightlines and a stage that is far too raised and very cramped. From my seat, I had a full and distracting view of the lighting rig. I can only imagine what the front few rows of audience could see from their viewpoint.

This production of Hand to God is funny, it’s just not as hilarious as it could be. However, there are great performances from an accomplished cast and some amazing physical comedy on display. If you’re up for a dirty and entertaining night out you could do a lot worse, but with only a few performances left in the season you’d better be quick to grab a ticket.

3 stars

Hand to God
By Robert Askins
Presented by Aleksandar Vass & Vass Productions
Directed by Gary Abrahams
Featuring Gyton Grantley, Morgana O’Reilly, Grant Piro, Jake Speer and Alison Whyte
The Alex Theatre, St Kilda
Until 18 March

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.