Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Avenue Q - a musical with puppets (Noel Coward Theatre, London)

Nicky lodges with Rod the banker, Kate Monster is a kindergarten assistant and is looking for love, Princeton’s a new graduate and has just moved into the neighbourhood. They’re puppets, and they live on Avenue Q along with some grown ups: Brian, his finance Christmas Eve (who is Japanese but has ended up working in a Chinese restaurant) and Gary (a child prodigy whose career fizzled out and now settles for renting out some apartments on Avenue Q).

It’s a musical. Proper musical with song and dance. With a live band who are hidden behind the set until the end. Just with puppets as well as people. A bit like a particularly tuneful Sesame Street - though Avenue Q has no connection with the Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop. Though it’s done in a similar style: every now and again screens appear to bring a comical animated interlude to explain “purpose” or some other entertaining aside.

The basic premise of this musical is that Princeton is searching for his purpose. And most of the other characters are grappling with some life issues too. Kate Monster wants to open a school for monsters. Rod doesn’t want to come out of the closet. The big Trekkie Monster who lives upstairs reckons the internet’s only good for one thing. And Gary’s wondering if he should specialise in Schadefreunde (German for “happiness at the misfortune of others”).

Since there’s no interaction between any of the proper cast and the grey-clothed puppeteers, after a while your eyes start to pay less attention to the talented actors who move and voice the colourful puppets. But it’s fun to notice how they sway and mimic the facial expressions of their puppets. And there are occasions when two puppets (worked by two puppeteers) will sing together, but with both voices provided by one person switching between different accents for each line. It must be exhausting work.

With songs like “Everyone’s a little bit racist” the show pulls no punches in tackling issues that our politically correct society skirts around. The songs investigate the characters’ emotions and attitudes. The story is moderately simple, but keeps moving over the two and a bit hours. It’s also crude at times (vulgar might be a better word), but not overpoweringly.

The audience roared with laughter every minute or two the whole way through. And the George Bush isn’t here for ever line gets a huge cheer.

Having transferred to London’s West End from off-Broadway (where it has been playing for three years), Avenue Q is a great musical show. While it’s playing to enthusiastic and appreciative audiences, the unfortunately the theatre isn’t full. Last night I was able to walk past the Noel Coward Theatre (used to be the Albery), notice that the show was on, and get a cheap ticket just before it started. And there was a free upgrade from the balcony at the very top of the house down to a good seat in the stalls (worth over twice the price).

If you get a chance, go and see it.

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