Avenue Q

Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Book by Jeff Whitty
Noël Coward Theatre

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Avenue Q is set to take London by storm. This feel-good musical is very funny and has real depth. It will be a surprise if it does not follow up its three Tony awards including Best Musical with some London equivalents. It is already entering its fourth successful year on Broadway and there is no real reason why the British incarnation, with a largely home-grown cast should not follow suit.

There was a slight concern that a show with so many American cultural references that might not translate but, with a few exceptions, this is unfounded, partly because so much of what goes on in New York today is seen in British living rooms on an almost daily basis.

The USP of this musical is the idea of showing ordinary lives today using the kind of puppetry and delivery that has become familiar on Sesame Street and the Muppets but, unlike those children's shows, addressing adult issues head on.

This show looks at a group of young people trying to find their feet between graduation and career and family with ambitions as yet unfulfilled. Their initial collective mental state is nicely introduced by the song "It Sucks to be Me" in which each character strives to prove that their life is the most depressing on the block.

If you assume that Avenue A is where the hippest of the hip hang out, then Avenue Q is a long, long way down the feeding chain. Set designer Anna Louizos provides an adaptable row of ramshackle houses that convey a down-at-heel atmosphere and somehow change character to fit the mood, rather like glorified dolls' houses.

The play opens with the arrival of Jon Robyns' hopeful Princeton, fresh out of college about to start a job and only a little put out to find that he cannot quite afford mid-town Manhattan. Prospects seem even better when he is introduced to the ineffably cute Kate Monster.

Life is not like that though and, soon enough, the job is gone, hope has flown and despite a graphically depicted sex scene with his kindergarten teacher girl, Princeton finds himself alone and seduced by the Mae West-like Lucy the Slut, like Kate Monster played by the sweet-voiced and very energetic Julie Atherton.

Princeton and Kate's problems are pretty much replicated by their friends and neighbours. Brian, played by Siôn Lloyd, is slightly older, unemployed and unmercifully bullied by his Japanese immigrant fiancée, Christmas Eve. Ann Harada reprises the role that she originated on Broadway and demonstrates both a wicked sense of humour and a voice of tremendous power.

Writers Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez do not allow their puppets to duck embarrassing issues. For almost the whole of the two-and-a-quarter hour performance, yuppie Rod tries to deny his own gay feelings for his room mate Nicky before finally achieving happiness along with everyone else.

Even race becomes an important issue, which in a story that features not only black and white but monsters too is surely inevitable. Who else though would have thought about writing a song entitled "Everybody's a Little Bit Racist"?

The making of this show is the interaction between puppets and their visible operators. The body language and expressions are doubled by appearing in two places simultaneously and the songs and jokes appear to be belted out by the puppets though in reality, one presumes that the human beings have some say in the matter.

Even this is not enough for the writers who also introduce three human beings who do not operate puppets. The last of these is Gary Coleman, pint-sized star of the TV series Diff'rent Strokes and now an archetype of early fame attempting to come to terms with much more permanent failure.

This is the one change from the American production that doesn't quite work since the character, played by Giles Terera, seems caught between depicting the TV star, who also failed to become Governor of California in a contest with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and pandering to a UK audience who might never have heard of him. It eventually gets uncomfortably stuck somewhere in the middle.

Where all of the issues referred to so far have been pretty much right-on, there is also the shaggily subversive Trekkie Monster, played by Simon Lipkin to contend with. He is reputedly based on Jeff Marx whose claims that his sole source of enjoyment is internet porn.

Not only does Trekkie get his own song "The Internet is Made for Porn", but it is he who proves that porn pays and allows the play to end by demonstrating its heart of gold. Remarkably for its subject matter, Avenue Q takes a very moral view of society today and that is part of its strength.

This unexpected American success story will sell on the back of chirpy, happy tunes, tremendous comedy and a sense of identification with the characters that most audience members will feel, even if they do not always want to admit it.

Unless you are easily shocked, go and see it now, you won't be disappointed.

Philip Fisher interviewed the writers for the BTG in New York at the beginning of 2006, and for TheatreVOICE just before the London opening. He also reviewed the Broadway production.

Beth O'Brien reviewed the 2009 transfer to the Gielgud Theatre

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Avenue Q.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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