Jemima Rooper and Harry Melling in 'Hand to God'. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Tristram Kenton

There’s a neat, one might even say devilish irony to the fact that while the Christian puppet shows put on by Robert Askins’ mother when he was a child faded into obscurity, his outrageous, blackly comic take on them made it on to Broadway and now into London’s West End. Its lead character, sock puppet Tyrone, would be ecstatic.

Tyrone is the mop-haired, button-eyed creation of troubled Texan teenager Jason (Harry Melling). When Jason’s unhappy widowed mother (Janie Dee) embarks on a puppet ministry with her adolescent Bible class, Jason dutifully produces a neatly stitched sock puppet, to the scorn of his disaffected classmate Timothy (only parked in Bible class while his mother attends rehab). But once slipped on to Jason’s arm, Tyrone seems to take on a voice of his own. Starting by splurging out Jason’s masturbatory fantasies about fellow student Jessica (Jemima Rooper), he’s soon into full-on demonic possession: zapping lights, bawling obscenities and assaulting Timothy. Before long, Jason is holed up in the basement with his blasphemous animated arm, while the pastor (Neal Pearson) and his mother agonise over what to do.

It’s a sharp, sometimes caustically funny conceit. Askins channels the sinister potential of puppetry to discuss hypocrisy, religion, repression and the role of concepts such as the Devil. Here Jason demonstrates that displacement in action, the diabolical puppet expressing all his locked-down, bottled-up, forbidden feelings of rage, doubt, desire and, above all, grief over his father. And once Tyrone blows the lid off, it is not just Jason who lets rip in style: the cheerily decorated church hall is soon a hotbed of confused coitus, both human and puppet.

But behind all the comic mayhem, there are a lot of dangling threads here. The characters are pretty skimpily drawn, the story jerks forward in brief, sketch-like scenes and the prologue and epilogue feel heavy-handed. There is no time to tackle properly the sizeable themes that Askins tips out on to the stage. So while Jason and his Mum make an emotional breakthrough of sorts, what of Timothy (Kevin Mains), who staggers out of the church drunk, bleeding and sexually confused? He feels a bit too much like a plot device.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s fine cast handle it all with great comic timing, however, particularly Dee and Melling. Melling is outstanding, bringing physical brilliance and emotional depth to the challenge of being both boy and puppet, ego and id, character and concept simultaneously.

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