Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Avenue Q UK Tour: opening night in Eastbourne!

Avenue Q is a beautifully unique concept for a musical. It tells a story of a group of misfits, some human and some of the puppet persuasion, living together in the rundown and quirky neighbourhood of Avenue Q. The characters are all searching for their way in life, or just a way to get out of the dumps. The musical is also infamously rude, controversial and above all, hilarious. 


Creator of the show Robert Lopez says he and co-creator Jeff Marx originally intended for Avenue Q to be a TV show, more of an adult version of The Muppets or Sesame Street: “we realised that every single problem in adult life could be turned into a funny, mock-educational song...we thought we could write this for the rest of our lives!”

The cast present at the Congress Theatre on the 5th July were next level hysterical – we laughed the whole way through, and when we weren't laughing we were staring, amazed, at the puppets as they interacted with one another, controlled effortlessly by the puppeteers. It struck me how easy it was to forget these creatures were accompanied on stage by actors controlling them – and it blew my mind over and over that these actors were able to concentrate on their singing, speaking and moving the puppets at the same time. 

The set is remarkable not only in its attention to detail and realistic portrayal of a rundown neighbourhood on the outskirts of a big city (New York), but also because of the many ways it can be used by the actors and adjusted to fit a certain scene. The flats have front doors, steps, second-story windows (ideal for characters to pop out during songs) and collapsible living rooms. Lights appear in various places and the top of the “buildings” can be moved or changed. For example, during a scene in which Kate Monster is standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, an additional flat is attached to the roof of the Avenue Q street and a balcony is put in place for her to stand on.
I commend the actors on their awareness of the set, not only during musical numbers but also during scenes, particularly when they walked through a door and remained in character until the door closed behind them. 


The decision to use puppets in this show brings with it the potential to overshadow the human characters, or to make them seem somewhat flat next to their furry and colourful co-stars. However, the characters of Brian, Christmas Eve and Gary Coleman were far from flat. They had just as much colour as their puppet friends, and provided the audience with just as many laughs. I also applaud the actors for their wonderfully focused interactions with the puppets; Brian’s conversation with Kate Monster in the first scene was as comfortable and convincing as an exchange between two humans (or indeed two puppets), and Gary Coleman displayed excellent focus and effortless charm when performing the duet “Schadenfreude” with Nicky. Christmas Eve showed us the finest example of acting with a puppet in her scene with Rod; she really engaged with the puppet and didn’t look once at the puppeteer. In fact, every human actor was looking intently at the puppet when speaking or singing, and because of this, so was the audience.

The puppeteers had perhaps the most difficult job of all. They spoke, danced and sang to the best of their abilities, all while controlling a puppet with both hands. What I felt was a lovely touch on their part was that despite the fact that the audience were supposed to be watching the puppets, they were never slack or lazy with their body movements or facial expressions – they were the human embodiment of their puppet characters. When Kate Monster had her mouth wide open in surprise, so did Sarah Harlington. When Trekkie monster fought to keep his filthy thoughts to himself, so did Stephen Arden. When Princeton was shy and awkward, so was Richard Lowe. Also the leads were alternating characters and thus juggling puppets throughout - totally flawlessly. 

Confession time: I was nervous about how this particular show might go down in Eastbourne. Let's just say their population is a little on the mature side...and this musical is delightfully immature! But I needn't have worried, my gosh the biggest laughs were coming from the crowd during the rudest scenes and songs! 'The Internet is For Porn' got a very nice response, and (spoiler alert) the puppet sex went down a storm. 

The show ends with the song 'For Now', which reassures everyone that whatever troubles we are facing at the moment, they will pass. I won’t lie, it gave me hope. We may be in squalor today, but tomorrow we’ll be living a life of luxury. We’re unemployed at the moment, but soon our dream job will come along. So don’t stress, relax, let life roll off your backs, except for death and paying taxes, everything in life is only For Now. 


I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to interview the show's stars recently - read that post here

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