I came to this production “cold”, knowing nothing about the show, having little regard for puppets, and a disregard for much American humour. Little did I know how much my theatrical spirit would be enriched and my views changed over the proceeding two and a half hours!
Avenue Q is a downmarket New York street inhabited by humans and puppets. The show revolves around Princeton, a college graduate searching for a purpose amidst his penury, surrounded by a nymphomaniac puppet, a masturbating monster and a Korean harridan, amongst others. It is an adults only production which draws on the idealistic world of children’s television characters, and then imagines what will happen when they grow up.
The cast consists of three human characters and eleven puppet characters who interact as if human, Sesame Street-style. The puppets are animated and voiced by actor/puppeteers who are present, unconcealed, onstage, but remain “invisible” relative to the storyline. The same puppet may be operated by different puppeteers in different scenes, and the actor voicing the puppet may not be the one animating it. One puppeteer sometimes voices two or more puppets simultaneously. Conversely, the so-called “live-hands” puppets require two puppeteers — again, in full view of the audience. It is a complex show to stage, but six months in rehearsal pay off.
Highbury Theatre itself is a little gem, tucked away on the Sutton Coldfield/ Erdington border. Modern and well appointed, the higgledy- piggledy café and bar lounge provide plenty of space for refreshment, whilst the auditorium itself is up to date, with comfortable seating and well raked tiers.
Producers Keith Hayes and Nigel Higgs have gone the extra mile on production values, and are paid back in spades. A professional set has been imported rather than an improvised constructed version being built, the puppets are the bespoke creations made by Paul Jomain for the West End run, and instruction on how to use them was provided first hand by West End puppeteer Nigel Plaskitt.
The cast are divided into two teams for the two week run, such are the demands of the production. Unsurprisingly the colourful puppets are superb, operated by black clad actors, but with both acting meaning that there are often twice as many expressions to observe as people on stage. Although a musical, the libretto is strong and humorous, reaching out way beyond its American origins with some neat contemporary and local references added in.
But it is the songs which shine. “Everyone is a little racist sometimes” is painfully funny with lines such as “Ethnic jokes might be uncouth/ But you laugh because/ They’re based on truth”. However the stand out moment is the outrageously crude show-stopper, “You Can Be as loud as the hell you want ( When You’re Makin Love)” . The sight of puppets bent over a table “at it”, their puppeteers bent over the table simulating being at it, whilst other puppets perform oral sex, and a monster masturbates while watching, is not standard theatre fare, and had the entire audience roaring with laugher at the ever –increasing contortions on the puppets and puppeteers’ faces.
The large and rotating cast deliver a tour de force as an ensemble, with no weak links. On the night, Liz Webster, an actress for whom amplification is usually unnecessary, was outstanding as Korean harridan Christmas Eve. She convincingly terrifies fiancé Brian (Richard Beckett) throughout, yet sings a beautiful solo , and duet (with Kate Monster) too; “When You Ruv Someone”. Karisse Willets delights as Kate Monster, and Suzy Donnelly sways and sashays a treat as Lucy the Slut. Richard Ham holds things together nicely as Princeton and Dave Fox’s Gary Coleman is streetwise and fun. Counterpointing the main characters, Dave Carey and Mark Murphy are a wonderful comic double act as the onanistic Trekkie Monster, and Duncan McLaurie offers a poignant, sensitive portrayal of Rod the closet gay who retains his friendship with Nicky, nicely played by Simon Baker.
The original production was conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, but it is this terrific company, and Keith Hayes vision which shine through. A great show, memorably realised, offering laughs, reflection, coming of age poignancy, and good old fashioned bawdiness, a brilliant night’s entertainment.
Avenue Q is on at the Highbury Theatre Centre until February 28. To book tickets call 07931 033661 or visit http://www.avenueq.org.