Touring – reviewed at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
What if Sesame Street got real? If the lessons it taught weren’t aimed at kids, but young adults? What if decidedly Muppety creatures…. swore? Avenue Q has the answers.
Avenue Q isn’t taking the Mickey out of Big Bird and co. Sure, we get Odd Couple Nicky and Rod, who bear a strong resemblance to Bert and Ernie, and Trekkie Monster isn’t a million miles from Cookie Monster in appearance, but it’s not mocking the classic characters, it’s homaging them to tell a different story.
This is a less reassuring tale of American life. There are good friends to be made – but friendship isn’t always easy and life can get decidedly messy.
It’s the tale of new graduate Princeton and the pals he makes on New York’s Avenue Q. As well as Nicky and Rod, who may or may not be gay, and ‘local perv’ Trekkie Monster, there’s aspiring comic Brian and fiancée Christmas Eve, the therapist whose clients never come back after the first session; classroom assistant Kate Monster; and building superintendent Gary Coleman.
Yes, the little guy from Diff’rent Strokes whose fame didn’t lead to fortune, thanks to unfortunate family issues. It’s Gary who looks after the letting of apartments on Avenue Q, one of the city’s less pristine neighbourhoods, making it perfect for young folk starting to make their way In the world.
What it lacks in class, the street makes up for in character, with Princeton and co the most colourful, friendly bunch you could wish to meet. Which isn’t to say they’re powered by saccharine, as they note in the songs ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ and ‘Schadenfreude’.
The show’s theme is the massive gap between idealist dreams and the reality of a world in which you may never find your capital ‘P’ Purpose. ‘What Can You Do With a BA in English?’ asksPrinceton, who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but could teach a masterclass in vacillation – he’s fallen for cute, smart Kate, but proves easy prey for bad girl Lucy The Slut.
Fastidious Rod is trying not to kill messy roommate Nicky, while Nicky wants Rod to admit who he is when he should be looking at himself. Kate dreams of establishing a school for monster children, while Christmas Eve and Brian, a decade older than Princeton, confront their fading ambitions. Gary just wants to keep what little self-respect he has left after a childhood in the public eye and years of being seen as a joke.
TV screens above the acting area occasionally offer advice, definitions or just extra gags, while the cuddliest little plushes you ever did see turn out to be the Bad Idea Bears – think Jiminy Cricket meets Hannibal Lecter. Packing crates sing, nightmare versions of the characters appear on Richard Evans’ brilliantly adaptable set… this is a hugely technical show, but director/choreographer Cressida Carre never loses sight of the story.
Unlike Sesame Street, Avenue Q doesn’t hide its handlers so much as celebrate them, with the operators mirroring their charges, meaning that whether it’s person or puppet your eyes rest on, you catch the moment.
For the puppet performers, a part in Avenue Q must be akin to patting your head while rubbing your stomach to the nth degree, a task requiring insane levels of concentration. The actors bringing Princeton, Rod, Kate, Trekkie, Lucy and Nicky to life have to provide the funny voices while animating a character, singing, dancing and timing the gags to perfection.
So a big round of applause goes to Cecily Redman, doing double duty as Kate and Lucy; Tom Steedon as Nicky, Trekkie and a Bad Idea Bear; Megan Armstrong as Mrs T (you get the full name in the show…), a Bad Idea Bear and Rod’s Second Arm; and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate Lawrence Smith, as Princeton and Rod. All impress with terrifically adaptable singing voices, US accents and movement, putting real emotion into their fluffier halves.
A scene from Avenue Q. Pic Matt Martin
As regular folk Christmas Eve, Brian and Gary, actors Saori Oda, Oliver Stanley and Nicholas McLean don’t have to manipulate puppets, but they do have to act their socks off interacting with them to help us believe Rod, Lucy and the rest are as real as them. And we do.
Oda’s The More You Ruv Someone (yes, the title’s a little bit racist, but writer Jeff Whitty and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx know what they’re doing) is a heartfelt highlight of the show. And if the Gary Coleman gags are becoming ever more obscure as those of us who remember the gone-too-soon actor likewise fade away, the dynamite McLean ensures it doesn’t matter – younger audience members will get the gist.
Several of the numbers have a point, without being boringly didactic: Special, There is Life Outside Your Apartment, The Money Song, For Now… they make us think while making us laugh. Others, such as My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada and It Sucks To Be Me, are more about building character, but always very, very funny.
The band is hidden in the unseen interiors of Avenue Q, but musical director Dean McDermott runs proceedings with aplomb. Completing the Avenue Q roll of performers are ensemble members and covers Jasmine Beel, Chloe Gentles, Ellis Dackombe and Robbie Noonan, lending a hand, and voice, here and there. I look forward to seeing them in the main parts one day soon.
Hilariously insightful, touchingly funny, tunefully sharp and filthily charming, Avenue Q is the street where you laugh.
Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ. Phone booking: 0131 529 6000.
Mon 27 May – Sat 1 June 2019
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinee Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.
Avenue Q on tour:
Mon 27 May – Sat 1 Jun
0131 529 6000
Tue 4 – Sat 8 Jun
0844 871 7650
Tue 11 – Sat 15 Jun
Tue 18 – Sat 22 Jun
029 2087 8889
Tue 25 – Sat 29 Jun
0844 871 7648
Wed 10 – Sat 13 Jul
0844 871 3022
Mon 15 – Sat 20 Jul
0115 989 5555
Mon 22 – Sat 27 Jul
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
08448 717 627
Mon 29 Jul – Sat 3rd Aug
0114 249 6000
Wed 7 – Sat 10 Aug
028 9033 4455
Tue 13 – Sat 17 Aug
Theatre & Convention Centre
0844 871 3021
Mon 19 – Sat 24 Aug
020 8985 2424
Tue 27 Aug – Sat 31 Aug
The Mayflower Theatre
Tue 24 – Sat 28 Sep
Mon 7 – Sat 12 Oct
0844 871 7645
Mon 21 – Sat 26 Oct
0844 871 3019