In New York last Autumn, I stumbled across the theatre where this new play by Robert Askins was appearing. Emblazoned boldly across the hoardings, with a hint of triumphalism possibly similar to that of the Normans in 1065, were the words “Closing due to transfer to London’s WEST END”. New Yorkers certainly revere British theatre, so perhaps they are entitled to take pride in the export of homegrown material to us, or, more cynically, perhaps they are entitled to have a good laugh at having been able to dump an enormous pile of excrement on us. Anyway, here it is – the love child of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, heir to the traditions of unsubtle, vulgar gross-out American comedy, except that its parents’ primary features of wit, warmth and music have somewhere gone missing. The bulk of the play takes place in a church hall, made to look like a play school in Beowulf Boritt’s set. We find an unusual congregation, the God-fearing members of which converse with each other in expletives and look for guidance from the Kama Sutra more than the Bible. Unusual also is that a puppet group has prominence over the traditional choir. The group is run by the recently widowed Margery (Janie Dee), aided by her son Jason (Hogwarts alumnus Harry Melling), demure Jessica (Jemima Rooper) and randy teenager Timothy (Kevin Mains). The troubled Jason, shy and grieving for a father who died from over-eating, slips his left hand into a sock puppet, gives it the name Tyrone and develops a demonic alter ego that lets rip into everyone and everything. The central joke, a ventriloquist’s dummy that has a life of its own, dates back to music hall or earlier, so can it still be funny? Well, yes, intermittently it is and, in a second act set piece (no spoilers here), it is hysterical. Melling makes little effort to suppress lip movement, but his deadpan expressions as the timid Jason contrast beautifully with the manic appendage to his left hand and he handles the technical challenge of playing two opposite characters, sometimes in the same breath, admirably. The rest of the play, concerning a bizarre lust triangle between Margery, Timothy and the Pastor (Neil Pearson) is just horrible and it is embarrassing to see actors as accomplished as Dee and Pearson involved in it. As Moritz Von Stuelpnager’s production features an entirely British cast, it is hard to see why closure on Broadway was necessary but, if the closure was in fact for other reasons, this would give far more credit to American theatre than anything in the play itself.
Performance date: 14 February 2016