"You're so far back in the closet you're in Narnia," is one of the more unexpectedly challenging lines thrown across the stage in this re-cast, Tony-nominated Broadway import. So let's come out, at least, on the show itself, the funniest and filthiest puppet glove punch-up I've ever seen.
A far cry, indeed, from Sooty and Sweep, and even from Avenue Q. Actually, the puppets are sock puppets, woolly bobbly things with button black eyes and tufts of synthetic hair. But when two of them copulate on the arms of Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies) and Jemima Rooper – finding new ambiguity in the term "hand job" – you simply don't know where to look, so you laugh instead.
I suppose Nina Conti and her Monk started it all with the latter's complaints about fist jobs and fiddly fingers, but the extra brilliance of Hand to God, written by Robert Askins and directed by the unbelievably monikered Moritz von Stuelpnagel, lies in the fact that puppet sex is the upshot in a Texan religious community centre with its own fair share of piety, misery and human tragedy.
In other words it is a proper (or, rather, highly improper) play with situations, inter-action and outcomes. Janie Dee's frantic Margery, recently widowed, is running the puppet practice sessions in the church hall, hoping to help out with her teenage son Jason's (Melling) emotional therapy. Jason has a crush on Jessica (Rooper), a fellow puppeteer, while school bully Tim (Kevin Mains) is coming on strong to Margery; as indeed is Neal Pearson's hypocritical pastor.
Avenue Q meets The Book of Mormon, with elements of The Exorcist, is a fair label, but Jason's puppet Tyrone, at first an alter ego, then a sort of ectoplasmic manifestation, is no less scary than Michael Redgrave's dummy in Dead of Night. But this is not about ventriloquism, it's puppetry as a further expression of oneself, and that dichotomy is brilliantly channelled by Melling, not least in the infamous sex scene.
For the joy of that sex scene resides in a sort of identity reversal in which Melling and Rooper, expressing themselves in their puppet socks, are literally invaded by a sort of orgasmic puppet rush (puppet love?) and have to find faces for what the puppets are doing.
Ripping up the bible is the least someone can do after this impious explosion, and your faith in the show only wavers a bit when it moves on to discuss other peoples'. Still, we've come a long way in a short time, and the community cosiness of the church hall designed by Beowulf Boritt (another name worthy of a sock puppet?) has been well and truly monstered.
Hand To God runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 11 June.