I used to be one of those minority parents who had never seen the eccentric hit musical Avenue Q. Now that I think about it, I realise that the reason it wasn’t on my own hit-list for a kids’ outing was that I felt sure I’d seen it already just by having found myself sat down in front of The Muppets and Sesame Street. Also, just how many puppet shows can one parent take, no matter how ingeniously they try to style themselves?
Having now caught this exuberant touring production at Richmond Theatre, I realise where its creators Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez were, as they probably still used to say on pre-millennial Broadway, coming from. They had wanted to splice the lures of Shakespeare’s and the Muppets’ top creations and stage a Hamlet with Kermit the Frog as lead. To croak or not to croak.
When commercial heads failed to nod, they re-routed themselves towards a more personal and, to put it diplomatically, quirky portrayal of their own circle of friends. To this end they recruited the writer Jeff Whitty, and the result was, and is, a wonderfully liberal, liberating romp through the interior lives of young adults living on the street that bears the show’s title.
This is indeed a peQuliar place, in which a bunch of seemingly minimal arm-puppets are manipulated through the joys, promises and traumas of young, urban, American adulthood, by their clearly conjoined adult; so clearly in fact that there is not the remotest attempt at ventriloquism. As the puppet’s mouth opens to belt out such numbers as “It Sucks to be Me,” “Schadenfreude” or “The Money Song,” so too does the operating adult.
But hang on a moment. Who is manipulating whom? Is the grown-up really dictating the movements of the infantile artefact which he/she is wearing like a partial garment, or are the kids in fact calling the shots in the lives of the supposedly mature? There’s no answer to this, only the constant, hilarious restatement of the paradox. This device is not only at the heart of the narrative, all about the stranding of young dreams and parental hopes on the awful shores of sober imperatives, but also at the centre of the music itself. This is essentially a procession of upbeat stage-pop, regularly pulled down into a melancholy world of minor chords.
If the whole thing calls for a massive suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, it also demands similar levels of shape-shifting by a compact cast of eleven. One way of acknowledging their excellence is to express surprise that players who would not look out of place in a major Broadway revival have in fact come from Our Very Own Academies: Central, Arts Ed, Mountview, Liverpool Institute…
Sarah Harlington, veteran of the recent European Hair tour is outstanding in the central doubling of Kate Monster and Lucy The Slut. And there is terrific, sometimes breathtaking slickness thanks to the work of director/choreographer Cressida Carre.
For a while I found myself wondering why under-fourteens are not allowed into this musical, so full of pizzazz and part-coloured Americana. Then it hit me between the ears. It’s filthy, barging its way with a swaggering, impervious, toothy smile through square and dated notions like watching your language when The Young are about. All very Book of Mormon, but with a kind of parental guidance slip attached. To hell with adult prissiness, it seems to yell; them and their censoriousness, their double standards and their sentimentality; oh yes, and those crazy dreams of full employment which they criminally foist on their offspring. No, it’s not the under-fourteens which we should be worrying about, it’s the over-forties. Them and their bloody parents. What will become of them? And do we care?
Review by Alan Franks
Following five years in the West End and sell-out runs worldwide (packed with mischief, bad behaviour and political incorrectness) this hugely entertaining show is hitting the road on a brand new tour!
Created by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (co-creator of Book of Mormon and writer of the songs for Disney’s Frozen) Avenue Q is an irresistibly charming musical which tells the story of the loveable characters on a downtown New York street trying to make sense of life’s burning issues.
Hilarious, cheeky and uproariously entertaining, with a terrific batch of songs performed by a cast of hugely talented performers and puppets, Avenue Q is the musical like no other.
So don’t let your life suck – book your tickets today!
Suitable for audiences 14+
Little Green, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1QJ
Monday 14th to Saturday 19th March 2016
New Wimbledon Theatre
Monday 21st to Saturday 26th March 2016
Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent
Tuesday 3rd to Saturday 7th May 2016
Palace Theatre, Manchester
Monday 16th to Saturday 21st May 2016
Milton Keynes Theatre