Thursday 28th September 2017 at Leeds Carriageworks.
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s Avenue Q is famed for its devilish take on children’s puppetry and Diva Productions definitely deliver the laughs with their take on the show. With book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q boasts quick fire comedy, visual gags and a delightfully warped take on the blindly boppy world of kids’ puppetry. The show follows the lives of Princeton, a newbie to Avenue Q, complete with all the naivety and laughable optimism that comes with finding your first apartment away from home, and Kate Monster, a highly strung romantic desperate for love but lacking in confidence. The premise is simple enough; the pair meet and embark on a journey of disappointment and self-discovery in which their friends contribute heavily as they navigate pivotal moments and the monotony of the daily grind. Along the way, there are plenty of songs to thrill, shock and delight; songs about coming out, racism, porn and regret – all performed before us by colourful, sweet puppet characters. The set-up is pretty genius, so it’s no surprise that the show has enjoyed great success on Broadway and in the West End.
With music and lyrics by Lopez and Marx, the songs of Avenue Q are infamously outrageous; few trigger subjects fail to make the cut and although the lyrics are designed to hike the eyebrows the the hairline, they also harbour some genuine sentimentality and a little sprinkling of wisdom for good measure. The vocal abilities of the cast in delivering these numbers is a key strength of this production; although the songs are not particularly vocally demanding, the ensemble produce some sweet harmonies. It has to be said that the sound demands of Avenue Q in this production are very sophisticated, with the cast singing in character and adopting various voices throughout the production. With some issues with the playback and mics as the only real smudges on a very polished surface, the company has done very well for themselves with this production.
Taking the format of Sesame Street (though rejecting any notion of direct connection), Avenue Q excels in manipulating the formula for the guilty laughs of grown-ups. Screens on either side of the stage spring to life with those simplistic animations and that classic sing-song approach to educating young people about life, but there’s always an adult-themed conclusion… It is that combination of jolly puppets in the stylings of cheesy children’s entertainment, brutal realism and pure smut which make Avenue Q such an alarmingly funny display of human experience and weakness. The Bad Idea Bears, played with painful and vindictive positivity by the exuberant Hayley Harris and Danny Smith, are a wonderful manifestation of human failure and their recurring appearances cause welcome chaos in the lives of the characters.
The puppeteering is skilled, with only a few moments in which cast members don’t quite keep pace with the action or stray from the eye line when interacting, but those moments are few and far between, making the puppeteering a vital strength which sets the whole production on a strong course towards success. It’s interesting to see how the cast bring their puppets to life; they only exist from the waist up, with some designed to be operated with lines from hands while others require two cast members to prop up a character and give them two functioning hands. The way the cast live the story alongside their puppet, providing facial expressions to bridge the gap between animated inanimate objects and feeling beings is fascinating to watch and beautifully showcases the capabilities of puppetry. As our protagonist Princeton, Chris Moss captures the naivety and the tragedy of the character well while Anna Potton plays the facial expression surrogate for all of Kate Monster’s experiences, making her performance impressive to watch. She voices Kate Monster with lashings of self-pity and plenty of straight laced anxiety while Moss voices Princeton as a gentle guy who can be a bit of a fool. The pair have good chemistry via their felt and fur characters, making the relationship sweet and comically doomed in turn.
Suźe Trim is striking as Gary Coleman but while she does a brilliant job with voicing him, that casting draws attention to the fact that there are no people of colour in the cast, which is incongruous and disappointing. That said, Trim’s performance is lively and full of conviction. Nicky Sidgwick gives the impression of being an old hand with puppeteering as he characterises Nicky with heart and with ease; his voice painting the character as the lovable youngster with his foot for ever in his mouth. But it is Luke Gillingham, playing both Rod and Trekkie Monster, who takes the crown for diverse and brilliant puppeteering. His characters are worlds apart and his voice talents in channeling the gruff Trekkie Monster and the emotional, pitchy delivery as Rod are as distinctive among the cast as his puppets are among the puppet cast. Joining this puppet cast are Charlotte Spowage as Christmas Eve, a woman forcibly marrying her pathetic comedian boyfriend Brian (Dale Vaughan) who just can’t catch a break. I didn’t particularly connect with this pair although they interacted well with the puppet characters and ticked the box for following the Sesame Street style. The character of Christmas Eve provides another example of the lack of diversity in the cast, although I do realise the difficulties facing small companies. Spowage certainly gives the role a real kick and the character does undeniably get big laughs from the audience as the hen-pecking wife archetype.
With Andrew Ashley at the helm, this is a polished take on a modern abstract comedy classic and the cast deliver the punchlines brilliantly while characterising their puppets to engage and invite connection. It’s a lively, fun show with its tongue firmly in cheek. If you like a little outrageous humour and you’re in need of a new guilty pleasure, make this twisted take on children’s puppetry it.
You can catch Avenue Q at Leeds Carriageworks until the 30th September and you can get your tickets here.