Press nights are strange. So are Americans.

At Hand to God, I sat in a part of the stalls surrounded by gushy younger American men fawning over Upper East Side matrons whose combination of spun sugar hair and Harry Winston boulders on their fingers often means they are “the money” behind a show. This press night gang already knew when to laugh and where to clap so that if you hadn’t been playing close attention you might not have spotted the Brits in the audience looking blankly at each other to see if they’d collectively missed some point.

Hand to God left my chums the West End Whingers bemused, and Mark Shenton delivered a swift and punitive first review which must surely have dampened the after show party.

In his darkened bedroom, troubled teen Jason is, unsurprisingly, vigorously busy with his left hand. Sleeved with a grey wool puppet, its foul mouthed persona releases his pent-up urges through oral socks.

This being the US bible belt, his widowed mother is equally frustrated: as perhaps the only loose pussy in a tight congregation, she evades the doughy attentions of the pastor but welcomes violent dirty sex at the hands, and teeth, of her son’s teenage rival. Didn’t Desperate Housewives cover this at least twice?

In an interview with director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (who I was sure was a character in Spring Awakening) said “It’s sex, and exploration of sex with puppets, and what have you. We just sort of roll it all out on the stage”. That much is evident.

By stark contrast to the concept and direction, the cast is outstanding. In a hugely welcome return to the West End after ducking Mrs Henderson Presents due to a family emergency, Janie Dee does everything humanly possible with the character of Margery, and providing she avoids injury in collision with bits of stage furniture, her thrashing sex scenes with the desirably urgent Kevin Mains should be even greater fun. As Jason Harry Melling has thrown off the puppy fat and peevishness of Harry Potter’s Muggle cousin Dudley to emerge as an imaginative actor with an amazing ability to detach his character acting from his superb puppetry: the scene where the demonically possessed puppets have sex but he and Jemima Rooper avoid even eye contact is hilarious.

There’s a further sweetly amusing scene between them, on swings, where shy Melling riffs a snatch of the dustily antique ‘Who’s on First’ sketch made famous by Abbott and Costello in the fifties.  As a bizarre example of what Americans find appropriate versus what happens here – the Abbott and Costello estate SUED the producers of Hand to God for misappropriation of their material. Clearly they’ve never seen a single British provincial pantomime, because it’s in practically every one.

The problem is the transatlantic gulf between what’s funny and ‘shocking’.  In America, the church is more part of national life and politics and any tentative satire on sexual desire, mental illness or religion is considered ‘racy’ – exhibit A: Book of Mormon – but that just doesn’t work on a nation weaned on Spitting Image.

To have a London audience be thoroughly outraged you’d have to grossly insult some more universally treasured British institution, like maybe bum Mary Berry with a flaming crucifix.

Paul Hollywood’s favourite recipe for Baked Alaska can be found here.

Leave a Reply