Book: Jeff Whitty
Music and Lyrics: Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Director: Cressida Carré
Reviewer: Dave Smith
Avenue Q, which first saw the light of day in 2003, has became notorious as the show with Sesame Street style puppets who swear a lot, have sex and sing songs like Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist and The Internet Is for Porn. Like Sesame Street, the show teaches its characters lessons in life, but it has to be said that they are very different to the ones covered by the children’s show.
With eleven puppet characters and three humans – and no clear or obvious reason exactly why three characters are actual people rather than puppets – it tells the story of a recent college graduate named Princeton who moves into a New York apartment. There he meets a range of characters including a kindergarten teacher named Kate Monster; a closet gay Republican banker named Rod and his straight slacker roommate Nicky; the internet porn-addicted Trekkie Monster; aspiring comedian Brian and his Japanese girlfriend Christmas Eve; and the building superintendent Gary Coleman, a fictionalised version of the actor who played Arnold Jackson in television comedy Diff’rent Strokes. It’s the last three of these – Brian, Christmas Eve and Gary Coleman – who are the human characters.
The plot, such as it is, follows the characters falling in love, having existential crises and coming to terms with everyday issues like unemployment, racism, homosexuality and pornography and singing songs about them as they go. As in War Horse, the puppets are operated by actors clearly visible on stage, but unlike War Horse, the actors are as integral to the show as the puppets and put in a huge amount of effort over the course of the performance. The programme notes emphasise that, although the puppets aren’t heavy, it’s still not easy holding them steady for lengthy periods. While at the same time making the puppet’s mouth synchronise to the words, acting the character, singing songs and at times leaping wildly about the stage. All deserve bucketloads of credit.
Leading the cast are Laurence Smith, who predominantly plays Rod and Princeton, and Cecily Redman as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, and while both are superb, it’s Cecily that takes the honours. She has a lot to do over the course of the evening, much of it at the same time, and does it all brilliantly.
There’s no denying that this is an irrepressibly enjoyable evening’s entertainment, mostly spent with a fairly broad grin at its boldness, its exuberance and its sheer chutzpah. Some of its songs are no more than fillers, but you won’t be forgetting The Internet Is for Porn or You Can Be As Loud As You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love) in a hurry.
But it’s getting on for twenty years since its debut and, while many of the life issues it tackles are – depressingly – still ‘issues’, things have moved on. So, for example, is it okay that the only non-white characters (if you exclude monsters…) are extreme caricatures or that none of the puppets represent BAME people? Or that the female characters are so traditional and one-dimensional in their ambitions? Even more pertinently, in a post #MeToo world, is it really okay to have jokes about getting a girl drunk to make it easier to get her into bed?
So, while Avenue Q is still a genuine crowd-pleaser with a killer concept, great jokes, mostly good songs and an excellent cast, it’s also now starting to show its age.
Runs Until 20 July 2019 and on tour | Image: Matt Martin