Dark comedy with a puppet

Thomas Pang (above) puts on a tour de force performance as Jason in Hand To God.
Thomas Pang (above) puts on a tour de force performance as Jason in Hand To God. PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

The excellent cast, brutal lines and smart set combine to make Hand To God an engaging work

REVIEW / THEATRE

HAND TO GOD

Singapore Repertory Theatre

KC Arts Centre/Last Friday

Sex, crime and gore sell stories, but in American playwright Robert Askins' dark comedy Hand To God, there are fiendishly delicious twists to these three elements to boot.

The gore spurts from gasp- inducing tussles, choreographed by actor Lim Yu-Beng, in which, among other imagined injuries, a character's ear is almost torn off. The twist? The flesh-chomping attacker is a sock puppet named Tyrone.

  • BOOK IT / HAND TO GOD

  • WHERE: KC Arts Centre, 20 Merbau Road

    WHEN: Till May 6, 8pm (Mondays to Fridays), 3 and 8pm (Saturdays)

    ADMISSION: $45 to $60 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: For those aged 18 or older only

The crime comes from such assaults, complete with actors furiously flinging chairs about the stage, but the twist is that Askins' plot focuses more on moral crimes, especially the lies people tell to take advantage of those in grief.

The sex scenes, while rough and ready, are between a teacher and her teenage student - and between Tyrone and Jolene, another sock puppet.

All these elements sizzle from an innocuous enough premise: Grieving widow Margery, played by the ever-scintillating Janice Koh, is a Sunday school teacher whose husband ate himself to death six months ago.

Her only child, Jason (Thomas Pang, in a tour de force), misses his father terribly, but seems to be holding up better than his maddened mother, who tries to mask her sorrow by teaching puppetry to Jason and his two friends, Timothy (a superb, swaggering Gavin Yap) and Jessica (a sweet, astute Ann Lek, who also voices the puppet Jolene).

They take their classes in a Lutheran church overseen by Pastor Greg (played generously and judiciously by the dependable Daniel Jenkins), a straightforward but frustrated bloke who has the hots for Margery.

She is, however, withering of him, preferring the slack-jawed advances of hunky Timothy.

Shy Jason's security blanket is Tyrone, who comes alive suddenly one day when Jason and Jessica are chatting under a tree. Jessica's affection for Jason establishes the latter's character of innate decency.

Tyrone's tough and trashy talk is as blue as his felt face, but as the reflection, if not realisation, of Jason's subconscious, Tyrone means well and says it like it is.

The wonder was how masterly and believably Pang was in flitting between soft-spoken Jason and the lovably anarchic Tyrone.

While everyone could clearly see Pang mouthing Tyrone's lines, the actor had shaped his two distinct characters so convincingly that the audience was never in doubt as to who Pang was playing at any point in the show.

Against such brilliance, you might be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the cast were hangers-on. But each of them was consistently excellent, riffing on Pang's boundless energy and making every one of Askins' lines sing, drawing easy, hearty laughs from the audience.

If one had to quibble, Koh the sylph was a tad too regal and polished for the character of Margery, whose scenes called for an off-the-rails frump.

With such talent to work with, the play's British director Guy Unsworth, an industrial economist turned theatremaker, upped the ante by turbo-charging all their performances. His snappy pacing made the most of Askins' whipsmart, and often brutal, lines, such as Tyrone's "You cry like a fat girl" to a whimpering Jason.

It all made for an evening that grabbed the audience by the throat and never let it go until curtain call.

British production designer Susannah Henry rounded everything off with a seemingly simple set full of surprises, including a bed emerging from a bookcase; a school notice board doubling as the inside of a car; and a wall installation of a tree whose branches swivel out to suggest the outdoors.

Hand on heart, Hand To God is the best outing in theatre here so far this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Dark comedy with a puppet'. Print Edition | Subscribe