Who would have thought you could stick a sock onto the end of an actor’s arm and turn him into the star of the show?
To be precise, Tyrone is more than just a sock. He has ears and stick-on eyes and an enormous mouth, which grows teeth as the play progresses. He is teenage Jason’s alter ego, if you like, created as part of his mother Margery’s ‘Christian Puppetry Ministry’, which she runs in the local church hall. As is traditional with puppets that are extensions of their masters’ bodies Tyrone is able to articulate things the deeply withdrawn, troubled Jason could never say. He can entertain young Jessica with a rehashed Abbott and Costello routine – ‘Who is your boss?’ ‘Yes you’re right, Hoo is my boss’, etc – which is all very well, but when he goes on to tell he she’s ‘hot’ the bashful Jason is mortified.
The problem is that as time goes on and Tyrone becomes more and more tyrannical, not to say demonic, so he gets more and more out of Jason’s control until he starts attacking other people and, ultimately, Jason himself. At one point it looks as if this might turn out to be some extreme, bizarre story of suicide. (It isn’t.)
You couldn’t make it up, and nor did the writer Robert Askins. His mother really did run a Christian Puppet Ministry in his local church in Texas, and he was the boy whose father had recently died. Whether his mother went on to have a wild affair with Jason’s teenage nemesis Timothy or found herself propositioned by the pious Pastor Greg is less likely. This is a troubled community, to put it mildly.
The joy of the production lies mostly in this central relationship between nasty, vile-mouthed Tyrone and the gentle and tongue-tied Jason. Such is the skill of the actor Harry Melling that that awful puppet really does take on a life of its own, and the more aggressive and violent Tyrone becomes the more you fear for the vulnerable, sweet-faced Jason. They spend much of the time eye-balling one another, nose to nose, and while Melling – and the other actor-puppeteers – makes no attempt at ventriloquism he gets to achieve the miraculous: he not only manages to create two distinct characters, he also somehow manages to react as Jason while being harangued by Tyrone.
The graphic sex scene, in which Tyrone and Jessica’s buxom creation do everything conceivable to one another while their manipulators chat about this and that, looking faintly bored, is hilarious (if rather out of character for Jessica). But that is the nature of the play. It deals with difficult topics – the bereaved, deranged mother and the neglected, hopelessly troubled and misunderstood, even possessed, son – in a way that’s farcical rather than crude. It is extreme but surprisingly affectionate.
The performances – Janie Dee as Jason’s mother Margery, Jemima Rooper as his would-be girlfriend, Neil Pearson as the pious pastor and Kevin Mains as ‘school bully’ Timothy – are universally excellent. The director is Moritz von Stuelpnagel – a name to conjure with – who has been with the play from its original reading in a hall off-Broadway to its off- and then on-Broadway production (where it was nominated for five Tonys). The set (Beowolf Borritt) moves from the church hall to Jason’s bedroom on a revolve. The special effects – Tyrone seems to have the power to make light bulbs go on and off – are spot-on, and very very funny. But the evening will remain in this reviewer’s memory mostly for that glorious central performance, or should that be performances, from the supremely talented Harry Melling; and all credit to whoever taught him to become such a slick puppeteer.
One of the weirdest and most wonderful nights I’ve spent in the West End.
This review was originally posted on londontheatre1.com.