Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Avenue Q – Richmond Theatre

Music & Lyrics: Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Book: Jeff Whitty
Director: Jason Moore/Evan Ensign
Reviewer: Marco Jacobs

Avenue Q is the type of show that every new musical aspires to be – it is the “little show” that made it big. It originated off-Broadway before transferring and triumphing over Wicked with the Tony Award for Best New Musical. Since arriving in the UK in 2006, it has played at three consecutive West End theatres and now its magic is hitting the roads on this UK tour.

And it is easy to see why the show has been such a success. It still feels incredibly fresh and inventive, and manages that careful juxtaposition of sending the audience into fits of laughter but retains a real heart throughout the action.

The show’s comic premise is that cute, furry puppets, living in a run-down street in an outer borough of New York, get up to all kind of adult activities. They enjoy energetic and varied sex, they get drunk, betray each other and worry about where their lives are heading. In other words: like any number of twenty/thirty-somethings out there. 

The cast is made up of a mixture of puppets and humans, including Princeton, an English Literature graduate who doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do with his degree, a homely kindergarten assistant, Kate Monster, who dreams of establishing a “School For Monsters”, a closeted gay banker, a Miss Piggy-esque sex-goddess called Lucy The Slut and Trekkie Monster, whose chief belief is that The Internet Is For Porn.

The puppets are manipulated by the actors in full view, and very quickly the eye attunes to viewing them as the same person, rather than separate entities, and it is fascinating to watch both move in exact unison, expressing the same thoughts and emotions with ease.

It is an example of an ensemble show at its best. Actors work in partnerships to control some puppets, several actors maneouvre the same puppet (although voiced only by one) and it needs to have the community feel of a street to succeed. This touring cast is excellent and all work their socks off to provide such high quality performances. Rachel Jerram is instantly lovable as Kate Monster with her wide grin and endearing nature, moving several audience members to a quiet tear with her rendition of A Fine, Fine Line. She also doubles as the sultry Lucy The Slut, which allows her wild side to be unleashed and her vocal dexterity is astonishing. Chris Thatcher as Nicky/Trekkie Monster/Bad Idea Bear had impeccable comic timing (along with his puppeterring partner, Katharine Moraz) and with just the slightest facial expression brought the house down. As Princeton/Rod, Adam Pettigrew is good and has a lovely voice, but he lacks the detail of expression that Jerram and Thatcher have in spades, and consequently the focus of the show tilted ever so slightly. Jacqueline Tate also deserves special mention for a brilliant portrayal of Christmas Eve, the wannabe therapist who isn’t afraid to mince her words.

Watching the demographic audience was fascinating as it crossed over many age groups: several teenagers were sat entranced with no sense of distraction, whilst a large number of elderly viewers smiled wryly and nudged their partners knowingly. It can be appreciated by all, but I feel it really speaks to those in their 20s and 30s who understand every line and problem from their own life. It is the generation that has been brought up to believe they can achieve anything, yet find it hard to achieve, well, anything.

It is very refreshing to see a show that isn’t afraid to express a dissatisfaction with life. At one point, Kate Monster expresses the thought, “Some people’s dreams come true, but I don’t think I’m one of those people. That’s the way life is, Princeton. Nobody teaches you that when you’re a kid, because if you knew, no one would ever dream. Or want to grow up. But you can’t stop growing up.” And although, things do resolve themselves essentially, there is still a sense of “not knowing” and an ambiguity around the ending that resonates around.

Whilst Avenue Q might be known as “the puppet musical”, it is perhaps the closest match to life for those growing up in the twentieth century that we have. For this reason, it is very much a show for those who hate musicals, as well as those who love them, and I defy you to maintain a straight face during the very graphic puppet sex scene!

Runs until Sat 5th March
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