It is about eleven months since I saw the original Broadway production of Robert Askins’ Hand To God, one of the most memorable offerings that season, and the sense of elation that memory evokes is tangible, even at this distance. A mostly terrific cast in a first-rate piece of new writing. My views about the themes and issues at stake in Askins’ work remain the same: http://www.livetheatreuk.com/index.php/reviews/broadway/320-hand-to-god

Nominated for several Tony awards, including for best play, best actor and best director, but winning none (that season was dominated by the English) and receiving across-the-board favourable reviews, Hand of God was an obvious choice for an across-the-Pond transfer.

Charles Isherwood, writing in The New York Times, described the play as “darkly delightful”, causing “a couple of audience members at the performance I caught, (to be scared off)  but bringing peals of joy to most everyone else, and standing “out as a misfit both merry and scary, and very welcome.”

With the original director on board, the same design and a text that had supported such a warm response on Broadway, what could go wrong?

Now playing at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre is Moritz Von Stuelpnagel’s second production of Hand To God, featuring an all-UK cast, including heavyweight talent such as Harry Melling, Jemima Rooper, Janie Dee and Neil Pearson. To say it has had a frosty reception with UK critics is to slam on rose-coloured glasses.

Time Out’s Andrzej Lukowski called it‘Hand to godawful, more like’ and thought the play was ‘like purgatory’. In The Guardian, Michael Billington thought the play “coarse, crude satire that – not unlike The Book of Mormon – greets one form of excess with another“.  Mark Shenton, writing forThe Stage, thought the production “dismal“, the play “drivel“, and the sexual politics at work in the narrative “actively distasteful“.  The Independent‘s Holly Williams thought the play “hard to recommend” and didn’t think it “up to the expected hilarity“. Only Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) found the production worthy of four stars, calling it “the funniest and filthiest puppet glove punch-up I’ve ever seen“.

The audience I saw the West End production with had no trouble being shocked, startled and tickled. Laughter and gasps of surprise/horror peppered the performance continually. As far as one could assess, much like as was reported on Broadway, a few might have turned up their noses but many had great time.

Sometimes critical reactions to productions are mystifying. The reaction of American critics to Rupert Goold’s production of Enron was another example of startling responses. Can the cultural divide that the Pond represents really count for so much? And, if so, why do shows like The Book of Mormon work well either in the West End or Broadway? Are there different rules for Musicals? And, if so, why?  What makes critics admire a play like The Motherfucker And a The Hat but write off Hand To God?

Having seen both the original casts in the premiere performances of Hand to God on Broadway and the West End, it seems to me plain what has been lost in translation; quite clearly, Von Stuelpnagel has made adjustments in his directorial approach to suit what someone imagines is the taste of West End audiences. There is a hardness, a brittle savageness, a heat, missing entirely from this production.

Only one of the cast members here is capable of meeting the level of performance achieved on Broadway; or rather, probably more correctly, only one has been permitted to do that. Everyone else has been given a sit-com air brushing. Four of the characters are duller, more stereotypical versions of the characters, presumably as a way of “making them more accessible” to English audiences.

Janie Dee and Neil Pearson are quite at sea, utterly unsure what style should be used and unable to ignite the fires that drive their characters. Pearson is especially flat, but it is a difficult role to pull off. Dee tries hard and has most success in her interactions with Kevin Mains’ outstanding Timothy. Mains is the one performer who is acutely and darkly focused on bad behaviour – all the while demonstrating, crisply and convincingly, the underlying pain he is suffering.

Harry Melling, really an outstanding and endlessly inventive actor, makes the most of the foul-mouthed raging demon, Tyrone the sock puppet, and his facility for comic bravura has never been more clear. Many of the laughs of the evening come from Melling’s twitches or lunges and the clever way he flips and flops between the miserable Jason and the uber Alpha sock, Tyrone. There is much intelligence in the playing, as well as wry and superbly subtle agony. Curiously, this performance shows you a slice of what a mesmerising Hamlet Melling could be.

But that is also the problem. On Broadway, there was no sense of “acting” from Jason/Tyrone. Steven Boyer simply was both characters and the virtuosity stemmed organically from that. Melling is both doing too much and not doing enough. The character of Jason is darker, more obscure and less obvious than Melling settles for here, although the choices made do lead to easy laughs. But the road not taken yields wilder flowers and it is a pity that Melling, easily Boyer’s equal and probably his superior, was not permitted that path.

Jemima Rooper, as Jessica, the girl Tyrone wants Jason to have sex with, and the girl capable of trading excellent insults and barbs with Timothy, is three-quarters there. The scene where her puppet and Jason’s have sock-sex takes the concept of fingering, so to speak, off the Richter scale and is undeniably uproarious. But her comic timing is wonky and the character is not as prickly or finely observed as she might be. Again, the shawl of a sit-com character seems slung around her shoulders.

What might this cast have been like had they approached the production the same way the Broadway cast did? The talent is there. Only the conviction to take that risk seems missing.

In a week where the same critics who have condemned Hand To God for its questionable tone have heaped praise on Katie Mitchell’s disturbingly violent and sexually confronting version of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, it is difficult to understand the resistance to Atkins’ text.

This is basically a three star production of a five star play. There is nothing magnificent here, but nor is there anything execrable.

Only Mains delivers a full fat version of his character – the grisly moment which is part of the end of Act One works because of Mains’ success in the role. We don’t like Timothy so we cheer on Tyrone as he physically attacks him and then we realise that to which we have been party. That kind of boomerang body blow should happen more often as these characters spin wildly in their fractured worlds, but the diluted performances mostly resist that.

Still, the play’s the thing and its value and interest shines through despite some curiously flat, sanitised performances. There are many laughs, but not as many provoked thoughts as the play has a right to expect to yield.

I am with Michael Coveney: it’s the funniest and filthiest puppet glove punch-up I have ever seen too.

Four stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.