What had started with the simple idea of taking popular puppets into “crossover” roles, specifically to cast Kermit the frog in the title role of a production of Hamlet, soon developed into a grown up musical with adult themes and a refreshing approach to issues which had carried over from the 20th century into the new one, with racism and homophobia given the vaudeville, or from a British perspective, Music Hall, treatment, as similar issues had been dealt with over a hundred years earlier. All of this is performed by a cast of eleven, according to the programme, although only nine people took the final bow, playing three human and eleven puppet characters between them.
We are treated to such wonderful numbers as Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist and If You Were Gay, both of which drew huge laughter and applause from a near-full audience at the Pavilion, and such versatile playing from the cast, particularly Sarah Harlington, playing Kate and Lucy, at some points even voicing both characters together in conversation whilst another actor controlled one of the puppets, Stephen Arden as Nicky, Trekkie Monster and a Bad Idea Bear, and Richard Lowe as Princeton and Rod, both doing the same trick of voicing two characters, one of which they were not controlling themselves. This is one of the advantages of using puppets, in a similar way to using masks, where different actors can play the same character, as the puppets can be held and controlled by anyone, as long as the voice remains accurate.
The actors are not concealed as they hold the puppets, indeed for most of the action they mirror the expression and head movement of their charge, adding emotion during the sadder parts of the show, and use their whole body in a physical expression as they dance, sidle, strut or mince across the stage.
This is so much more than just a rude version of The Muppets or Sesame Street, although there are many nods to both shows and characters within them. The plot could be from any of the great American musicals of the twentieth century, a love story set in a run down part of town, with down-at-heel folk who live on the street of the title, but the tale is brought abruptly into our time with the language and attitude of the characters, so that the Trekkie Monster spends most of his time on the internet, as featured in the song The Internet is for Porn with such memorable lines as “grab your dick and double-click”, and we are treated to live, onstage puppet sex during You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want When You’re Makin’ Love.
It is not all modern and rude, however, some of the ballads are philosophical and full of sentiment, and would not be out of place in a Gershwin or Rodgers and Hammerstein show, for example Act One ends with two of the cast realising that “there’s a fine, fine line between love and a waste of time”, and although the first part of this song is made funny by a Chinese accent, by the end of the song and the interval we feel the true emotion of the characters.
This show is brash, rude, fun, and wonderfully performed by a highly skilled cast, who, together with a great live band under MD Daniel Griffin provide a couple of hours of escape from the mundane into the magical adult puppet world of Avenue Q.
See it at Bournemouth for the rest of this week, and back in the region next year, at Bristol in February and Southampton in April.