This review comes with a health and safety warning: The Hope Theatre does not have air conditioning. And I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s been pretty hot recently. Surprisingly, however, the volcanic heat is not what first catches my attention as I enter the theatre. Hunched over a laptop and mixer, Charlie O’Connor is responsible for an intense, thumping beat that reverberates through the warmth. Hand of God is my first experience of ‘gig theatre’. I like theatre. I like gigs. This should be good.
Wielding a microphone, Kieron (Sam Butters) takes us on a journey with the worst 5-a-side football team in Birmingham: ‘Dyslexics Untie’. Match commentary, stories of family tension and personal struggle are underscored by old-school garage beats and regularly punctuated by energetic raps performed by Butters and live-mixed impressively by O’Connor. And the central performance is hugely captivating, Kieron commanding the space from the first second until the final whistle. I was impressed that the ‘gig’ elements not only added to the atmosphere but were genuinely strong storytelling devices, hyping up the audience when required as well as adding humour.
The story follows Kieron’s desire to win his local Powerleague 5-a-side championship and then, naturally, be scouted professionally as a result. The narrative takes in much more than this, though. A post-match pint in the local really evokes the working man’s pub in a way that makes me feel the rough, dark carpet and taste the Carling. The portrayal of Kieron’s relationship with his father is particularly emotive, achieving an agonisingly real portrayal of the complicated mix of pride, toxic masculinity and need for affection that stunts so many male connections. A scene in which they watch the football together on TV, Kieron so desperate for his father’s attention but unable to win possession of it, feels especially poignant.
It’s high-octane stuff as we rattle through fixtures and rap performances, and so the few moments which really shift the narrative style and slow the pace down, especially in the heat of an argument between Kieron and his dad, are particularly effective. The piece would have benefitted from more of these moments, to avoid being too one-note. It’s clear Butters’ energy carries the piece, and he’s a charismatic performer, but he’s strongest when inhabiting Kieron, less convincing in his commitment to the other characters of the story. Despite this, the play does a great job of being engaging, entertaining theatre that covers some important topics without really delivering a gut-punch moment of insight that would really promote it to the next level. So, gig theatre? This is surely a prime example of how to make the genre work. Hand of God mixes excellently exciting, electric storytelling with music that really embeds us in the world and mentality of the play. By the end I’m sweating buckets and exhausted: I feel like I’ve been to a rave and played a full 90 minutes all in one. To this reviewer, at least, it felt like a win.
Written by: Sam Butters
Music Composed by: Charlie O’Connor
Directed by: Charlie Derrar & Joseph Siddle
Produced by: Danielle Gearing for TECTUM Theatre and Brutal Snake Productions
Hand of God plays at The Hope Theatre until 30 July 2022. Further information and bookings can be found here.