A story of how the roots of religion generally
– and Deep South American Christianity specifically – may be preached, but is little
more than a series of made-up stories and rules to which notions of right and
wrong can be assigned and evil can be blamed, whilst removing personal
responsibility for our own actions by blaming a "creature with
horns"... A hilarious performance that is foul-mouthed, dirty and scary
and where the star turn is a sock puppet that makes no pretence of looking real
but is adeptly used to be believable with actions that both shock and amuse in
Melling has a stage presence and is a fantastic talent in both these roles – worth the price of a ticket alone.
Puppets and religion may seem an odd mix, but Puppet Ministries would appear to be commonplace in the USA. The playwright Robert Askins was introduced to one by his mother as part of his weekly church outings as a child in Houston. As he says, it was a way of engaging children in the Christian message by taking "the strangeness of Christianity and (putting) it in a happy meal box with a soft toy". Or a way of drumming into young people that religion is all-solving and creates a distance between real people dealing with real issues.
Such a group is the setting here, run by recently bereaved Margery (Janie Dee giving little more than a passable demonstration of confused emotions) and attended by her son Jason (Harry Melling – in one of the two halves of the role he plays with a subtlety that makes him the star of the show by more than a mile) – both of whom are using it as the outlet for their grief in place of actually talking about the feelings they have towards the husband / father. The only other attendees are two slightly two-dimensional misfits that seem to be 'stage fillers'; Jessica (Jemima Roper – going from nerdy to sex bomb with little trajectory) and Timothy (Kevin Pearson); she seemingly because she may have religious beliefs and him possibly forced to cure his rebellious nature (and also because he wants to – and indeed does – have sex with the older woman) – though it's never really clear as to their back stories. Add to the group Pastor Grey (an unmemorable Neil Pearson), who has a need to be pastoral with a small 'p' for both the group and due to his feelings (or the feelings he thinks he should have?) for Margery.
The issues are simple, untaxing and nothing new – how not to deal with grief, emotions, sex and sexuality – all being restricted by the notion of religion having the answers and man just needing to sit back and wait to hear them. With thinly developed characters and emotions, you may think it's hard to care about any of the story. What it needs is something else to draw your attention, your interest and make the piece more exciting....
And that's where Tyrone comes in....
For Tyrone is the hand puppet (little more than a sock with eyes and simple sticks to manipulate) that Jason has taught himself to use and 'bring to life' – initially to perform the religious parables, then quickly to tell jokes, flirt inappropriately on his behalf, and then become his friend... his enemy... or his schizophrenic devil side that brings both Jason – and the play – to life with dynamite effect. Not only does he have the funniest, darkest, rudest – and sometimes scariest – lines of dialogue, he also stares, sings, slaps and bites (drawing blood in more than one vicious scene). This is the other half of Melling's role and he operates him fantastically well so that whenever he is on stage (even in the background), your eyes are drawn to 'him' away from all the other actors. And when I say 'him', just to be clear, this is little more than a sock on his arm.
There are times that this sock actually scared me – and disturbed me when having sex with another puppet. Not just sex - but acts that would be illegal if performed by the actors. The believability is all the more powerful due to how Melling's facial expressions manage to both involve and distance you as he has dialogue with the puppet so that you never think of it as just one person speaking (which of course it is). I heard an interview that stated he learned the puppetry over Skype from the Broadway cast – which adds to the opinion that his acting skills do much more to make this work than technical ability alone. Melling has a stage presence and is a fantastic talent in both these roles – worth the price of a ticket alone.
There is only one reason to see this piece and it's Tyrone (or arguably Melling). But it's a major reason and something rarely seen in both performance and script. The problem is that the scenes without him – and the lack of believability in, or empathy for, the supporting characters – don't seem to have had as much effort spent on them once the team realised the theatrical gold they had struck upon already. It means the resolution is difficult to connect with as you were never really meant to emotionally connect. And the final puppet monologue seems a bit like unnecessarily forcing the religious point. It's a weird balance of trying too little, yet trying too hard.
But you ultimately have to question whether that matters. It's going to gain huge fans and equally huge detractors. It feels a little picky to be disparaging of a show that has a very welcome place on the West End and should bring in new audiences to have an experience that is difficult to compare. Oh but don't take the children. It's not that sort of puppet show...