Book: Jeff Whitty
Director &Choreographer: Cressida Carré
Producer: David Hutchinson, Phillip Rowntree and Richard Darbourne
Music: Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Reviewer: S.E. Webster
A New York backdrop, brightly coloured characters and plenty of excitable singing and dancing, and some suspiciously muppet-like puppets; theatre audiences might be forgiven for initially thinking they’d signed up to an evening of Sesame Street, as they settle down to watch the Tony Award winning production of Avenue Q. Au contraire mes amis; this production is strictly for the adult audience, with plenty of sexual innuendo and discussion of serious issues including racism, sexuality and the struggles of being homeless. Moreover, if watching puppets, or rather muppets, having sex on stage is likely to shatter your childhood memories of Sesame Street and that ilk of kids’ television, then Avenue Q is perhaps not for you.
Surprisingly, however, the production delivers on all levels and fully merits the accolades and hype it’s already received over the years. The humorous, singing puppets are able to navigate a fine tight-rope of tricky social issues while entertaining their audience. American comedy does not always fully align itself with British humour, and yet this American writing effortlessly won the applause and laughter of the Leeds audience at the Grand Theatre. Although, some of the humour is very risqué and me thinks, probably receives different levels of appreciation depending on where the production is showing. For example, they may wish to rethink their joke about the Germans taking pleasure in other people’s pain and misfortune, should they ever wish to perform in Berlin!
Solid vocals are delivered by the entire cast, and the male and female leads, Tom Steedon and Lucie-Mae Sumner, should be congratulated on their strong performances as Princeton and Rod (Steedon) and Kate and Lucy (Sumner). Indeed, most of the cast have multiple rôles as various puppets, some of whom have to sing or act the parts of two or three characters at any one time on stage. Meanwhile, the human characters of Christmas Eve (Jacqueline Tate) Brian (Richard Morse) and Gary Coleman (Ellena Vincent) respond well to the puppets as characters in their own right.
Of course, the puppets and their puppeteers are virtually always visible on stage to the theatre audience. The storyline is often so engrossing that our attention is hooked on the puppet and not the very visible puppeteer. And yet, there were times when you can’t help but notice the actors working the puppets. Firstly, they are significantly larger than their puppets, of which only the torso, arms and head are constructed. Moreover, the actors’ facial expressions also proved a distraction, since they were also and unavoidably in character as much as their puppet personas. Therefore, it was sometimes as if we were watching two Kate Monsters or two Princeton’s performing simultaneously on the same stage. This is where the production diverges away from other puppetry success stories, like the National Theatre’s War Horse, where the size and complete structure of the horses, and the fact that the animals do not have dialogue make them more convincing as real life characters. We don’t have to rationalise the reality of the puppets in the same way. Avenue Q, unfortunately, just loses that edge of magic that War Horse has so successfully captured.
Set Design for Avenue Q, by Richard Evans, also deserves commendation. Simplistic and yet effective, the street of Avenue Q was cleverly designed with miniature sofas appearing up in the higher storey rooms, a simply lit outline of the New York skyline in the background, and a clever use of a screen with animations, which added to the comedy of the production.
All in all, Avenue Q is an unconventional night out at the theatre, but certainly not one to be missed!
Runs until: 4th June 2014