AND THEY CALL IT PUPPET LOVE….
“Avenue Q meets The Exorcist” claim posters for Robert Askins’ Broadway hit, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Or “The Muppets play The Omen”. But for this West End cast – fabulously led by Janie Dee, Neil Pearson, and a remarkable turn from Harry Melling – we need a more British line. Just say that if Joe Orton had, perish the thought, got his hands up Sooty it might have turned out like this.
The opening moment is a bravura, stunningly foul-mouthed speech from a sock-puppet with a wide Muppety mouth, about how ideas of social and collective morality emerged from a lost “golden age when you could just shit anywhere”. But then we are in the mild surroundings of an American church basement classroom, where neat mumsy Marjorie – Janie Dee – is rather desperately preparing a Christian puppet show because “I can’t sing and I can’t preach”. The truculent teen Thomas (Kevin Mains) fancies her, her own son Jason (Harry Melling) is shy and troubled, and Jess (Jemima Rooper) is suspiciously keen to give her sock-puppet breasts.
It is not going well: Jason manages to have his puppet, Tyrone, sing “Jesus Loves me”, but already Tyrone has developed a deep bluesy sound that bodes no good. Pastor Greg – a sweetly wet Neil Pearson trilling “have a blessed day” and swearing “Oh, son of a biscuit!” declares his affection to an unresponsive Marjorie. We discover she is widowed, her husband having overeaten himself to death, and palpably losing her grip. Her controlling needy bossiness of her son Jason distresses them both, and when priapic teenage Thomas makes his move she goes – well, tonto. You’ve never seen Janie Dee this nuts, this destructive, violent, sexually voracious and prone to lunatic wrestling. Believe me, it’s a treat.
But meanwhile poor Jason is tormented by the puppet Tyrone, which never leaves his hand but grows an alternative Satanic personality, both defending and mocking him. Melling does it brilliantly, simultaneously performing both the boy’s timid horror and his hand’s anarchic evil. Lying in bed he quavers like a good church-boy ”I wanna be kind and respectful to women and care for my body and my mind”, whereon Tyrone in his other voice yells “No you don’t! Ch-er-rist!”. The Tempter’s lines are subtle too – this is actually a pretty subtle play about adolescent inner conflicts – observing mockingly “When your mother says to you sit still, be quiet, she is saying to you -stay small!”.
In company Tyrone is ever more violent and aggressive; his dominance over Jason is mirrored in another church room by Marjorie’s inner demons provoking another crazed aggressive-lustful encounter with Thomas. Who himself – a reflection in turn of Jason – is confusedly deep in calf-love. Pastor Greg can’t exorcise any of them, as Tyrone – Melling’s voice ever more deep-devil roaring, his sock hand gaping and gabbling — shouts unrebuked ” You’re a piecea shit, Pastor!” and grows teeth.
It is very funny at times, yet oddly tense and touching as Melling’s Jason cringes from the atrocities wrought under a wash of red light by Satan raging in glory at the end of his arm. A remarkable interlude of puppet sex with Jess’s busty blonde equivalent sees both the teenagers – who have never managed to speak their attraction as nervous young humans – standing side by side like embarrassed onlookers while their hands hump and quiver and gasp, seemingly of their own accord. Yet it is Jess, in her own voice, who asks the core question facing all confused angry teenage boys : “D’you wanna be a shallow violent puppet all your life?”.
Jason doesn’t. Not in the end. But there is more virtuoso , terrifying solo conflict as Melling nerves himself to reject Tyrone, in moments reminiscent of the Bible’s “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off”. The moral – and it is such a moral comedy that even American evangelicals haven’t attacked its vigorous obscenity – is that demons are not external, and driving them out is entirely up to us.
But apart from the moral, admit that demons do have a sexy vigour denied to sweet pastors like Greg. In a coda, sockpuppet Satan neatly defines the play’s core by observing yeah, we need him, “but then we need him to go the fuck away”. And there’s no point “solving our problems by putting horns on them”. Nice.
box office : vaudevilletheatre.com to 11 June
rating four cussed puppet mice