Old Fitz Theatre, February 27


Everyone seems to anthropomorphise something: if not a pet, then a god or a car. So why not a puppet? This devilishly black 2011 comedy by US playwright Robert Askins has us giggling and grimacing, even as it poses questions about morality, faith, scapegoatism and the crevices that constantly fracture our mutual lines of communication.

Margery’s husband has died of a heart attack. She’s not coping and nor is her teenaged son, Jason. Margery’s self-therapy involves establishing a teen sock-puppet workshop under the auspices of her fundamentalist church, run by Pastor Greg, who fancies her. It’s attended by shy Jason, no-nonsense Jessica and the renegade Timothy – who doesn’t do sock-puppets, but also has a massive crush on Margery, while Jason has a soft spot for Jessica.

Michelle Ny, Tyrone and Philip Lynch. Photos: Robert Catto.

Enter the puppets. Margery’s Rita loves Jesus. In fact there’s so much Jesus-loving going on that no fewer than five pictures of Him decorate the room, including one where he wears a gown made of muted stars-and-stripes. Jessica’s puppet, blond, big-lipped and real purdy, is called Jolene, and Jessica keeps stuffing her with fluff until the bust approximates Dolly Parton’s.

But Rita and Jolene pale before Jason’s creation, Tyrone. Tyrone never leaves Jason’s hand, other than when that hand is submerged, and he seems to operate independently of nerdy Jason, saying and doing things that Jason would rather drown himself in a sewer than say or do. As Tyrone tells Timothy, “Look at the kid and tell me who you think is in control.”

When Tyrone’s increasingly demented behaviour begins to suggest that either he or Jason is possessed, the comic puppet/human relationship becomes impaled on the horns of a “right” and “wrong” duality, and even on the big one of what business humanity had in inventing devils and messiahs, anyway.

Director Alexander Berlage (for Red Line Productions) realises all the childlike playfulness, alongside the bizarre darkness (Tyrone grows teeth for purposes other than feeding) and the frenzy of sexual desire – sometimes consummated, including between Tyrone and Jolene. Jeremy Allen and Emma White’s set is a wonder-world of religious kitsch and nightmare visions, on which the performances of both actors and puppets withstand the closest scrutiny.

Merridy Eastman’s Margery is as nervous as a cat on a church bell. Eastman makes her primrose-sweet, even as she swelters in guilt, despair and insatiable lust. Gerard Carroll’s Paster Greg oozes hypocrisy as if it’s being squeezed from a tube. He smiles the smile of a politician on the hustings, while manipulating those around him as if he, himself, were the Almighty. He’s also a dab hand as an action man when an exorcism is in the offing.

Timothy is a rat and a bully, and yet Ryan Morgan makes him oddly likeable, even if his crush on Margery is really just lust with lipstick on. Jessica is the most undercooked character, but Michelle Ny ensures her don’t-mess-with-me boldness is tempered with a demureness that makes her stand out in a primary-colour play.

Ultimately the production’s success rides on the actor who must bring both demonic Tyrone and introverted Jason to life, and Philip Lynch does this with such comedic bravura and emotional confusion that were there a merch stall selling Tyrone puppets, demand would far outstrip supply.

If there’s a flaw it’s that when Askins changes the tone of his play to try and touch us rather than amuse or provoke us, he could have dared to go further.

Until March 26.