Review – Avenue Q, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th February 2019

Avenue QAs a special family treat, we were joined not only by Lord and Lady Prosecco but also our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra (grown up a bit now, you’ll be relieved to hear) together with their Mum and Dad for another revival of Avenue Q. And a jolly good thing too. This is one of those shows, like Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, that never really goes away, and why would you want it to?

Avenue Q characters 2019We last saw it in 2011, at this self-same theatre, and looking back at the characters’ photos of the time, some of them have had a bit of a makeover. Princeton has gone yellow; Kate Monster has become more recognisably a person of fur. Lucy the Slut isn’t as pink as she was; Rod is bluer than he was. The Bad Idea Bears are even more insinuatingly attractive. This can only go one way.

The story is as timeless as ever. Princeton still doesn’t know what to do with a B.A. in English, but he’s set himself up with a job and started looking for digs on Avenue A. It’s only when he gets as far as Avenue Q that he can just about afford anything. On Day One in his new apartment the company downsizes and he loses the job. Never mind, he lives next door to the fetching Kate Monster and finds a whole new bunch of friends in his ‘hood. After a dubious meeting with the Bad Idea Bears (buy some beer! Buy a crate!) he takes Kate on a date where the alluring Lucy the Slut is the headline cabaret artiste.

Lawrence SmithDespite the temptation of Lucy’s pneumatic assets, Princeton takes Kate home where they have earth-shattering puppet sex from every conceivable angle with immense, prolonged sustainability. Kate forgets to go to work and is harangued by her boss, the monster-prejudiced Mrs Thistletwat. But Kate and Princeton’s relationship is doomed because of his fear of commitment, so they split up. Lucy comes back on the scene. And it all goes downhill from here.

Meanwhile, we have the on-off friendship/relationship between the closeted Rod and the affable Nicky, the stormy household of Brian and Christmas Eve (yes, real people), and will Princeton ever find his purpose? Plus Gary Coleman. Yes, the one off Diff’rent Strokes. Yes, I know he’s dead. Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense when he was alive, it makes even less sense now he’s dead. Why did the writers include a real-life character? It’s a one-joke idea. Maybe it’s become so outdated that he’s become retro. I dunno.

Cecily RedmanIt’s a lively, bright production, as slick as ever, and crammed with fabulous bad taste that leaves you laughing for hours. The songs are tuneful and jolly, performed with great pizzazz by Dean McDermott’s six-piece band, and have surprisingly witty and incisive lyrics that stay with you, well, forever. In “The Internet is for Porn”, who can forget the immortal phrase, Grab your dick and double-click? There are a few nicely updated moments too; Donald Trump doesn’t get off scot-free.

Tom SteedonBut we’d forgotten how dark the comedy is. It’s all very well that the Bad Idea Bears suggest a beer – we’ve all been there – but they also creep in to your depressed moments to provide a rope so you can end it all; and they do it with such inexorable cheerfulness that you can see how a vulnerable, unstable person could find it an attractive option. Rod’s selfish insensitivity to the needs of his friend means he sees Nicky being passed from pillar to post to sleep on friends’ floors until they have enough of him, and he’s prepared to let his old friend (whom deep down he loves) become homeless and sleep rough. And, although the puppet sex is a comic tour-de-force, basically, Princeton got Kate absolutely rat-arsed in order to take her home; was it really consensual? The comedy is so perfectly done that you laugh at all these situations without realising their potential seriousness. The final song of the show emphasises that life goes on, whether or not you find your purpose; just live for self-satisfaction For Now; long-term ambitions and New Year’s Resolutions can go to Hell.

Megan ArmstrongThe puppetry works incredibly well; by having the puppeteer visible to the side of the puppet, it’s as though each of the puppet characters has two faces – the puppet’s face, that mainly only moves by opening its mouth, and the actor/puppeteer’s face, slightly overacting so as to give additional expressiveness to what the character is feeling. And the vocalisation is extraordinary too. The singing is extremely strong, and the different voices that each puppeteer gives their characters are instantly recognisable and fully unique to their own character. That works particularly well in the few scenes where one actor is required to talk to him or herself. Although this is truly an ensemble show, I thought the performances of the Lawrence Smith (Princeton/Rod), Cecily Redman (Kate/Lucy), Tom Steedon (Nicky/Trekkie/Bear) and Megan Armstrong (Mrs T/Bear/2nd arm) were outstanding.

First Bad Idea BearIn the real world, there’s an energetically comic performance from Saori Oda as Christmas Eve, as un-PC as you could possibly get in the portrayal of an oriental, I mean Asian-American character, but then again, as the song says, everyone’s a little bit racist. Oliver Stanley nicely conveys Brian’s awkward ungainliness, and Nicholas McLean gave us an excellent Gary Coleman, including spot-on facial expressions and a quality song-and-dance vibe.

Second Bad Idea BearBut it’s the puppets you remember: the fallible Princeton; the hopeless Kate; the fraught Rod; the jazz-handed Nicky; the temptress Lucy; the masturbation-obsessed Trekkie; the innocently irresistible Bears. No wonder this show just runs and runs! This is Week Four of a long, twenty-four venue tour, and after its week in Northampton, it goes on to Chester, Basildon, Derby, Bradford, Canterbury, Wirral, Cheltenham, Reading, Ipswich, Dunstable, Dublin, Leicester, Edinburgh, Brighton, Wolverhampton, Cardiff, Glasgow, Nottingham, Sheffield, and ending up in Belfast in August. There is Life Outside your Apartment – highly recommended!

Review – Avenue Q, Derngate, Northampton, 9th July 2011

Avenue QThis was our second stroll down Avenue Q, the first being about five years ago. We had such happy memories of this hilarious show that we knew we had no choice but to see it again. I remember very clearly buying the tickets the first time. The lady at the box office almost wanted us to swear on the Bible that no children would be attending, lest they witness the horror of puppet sex. We were able to reassure her on that point, and almost began to be alarmed at what effect it might have on us.

The puppet sex – inter alia – is still performed with blissful abandon, I’m delighted to report. The success of this show is the winning combination of the daily problems that beset human beings – being out of work, troubled relationships, ambitions, self-deception, discrimination, and so on; but being performed by Sesame Street style puppets. The witty songs all have great insights into modern day life, and the whole thing overwhelms you with its utter charm and honesty.

PrincetonCentral to the show is the on-off relationship between Princeton and Kate Monster. He’s the new kid in town, she’s the one who can never keep a boyfriend. There’s an instant attraction; and after the liberated night of passion (viz. paragraph 2) Kate Monstercareless talk and misunderstanding drives them apart. Princeton rebounds into the arms of Lucy the Slut, a singer of dubious decency; but she’s not a Nice Girl and only wants Princeton for his physical prowess. Kate is on the viewing platform of the Empire States Building, alone and forlorn like Princess Diana at the Taj Mahal,Lucy the Slut where she unwittingly causes a catastrophic accident to Lucy, and there’s a hope that her relationship with Princeton just might have a future.

RodA concurrent tale of another turbulent relationship is that of Nicky and Rod. They house-share but have never been honest with each other about their sexuality. Rod is firmly in the closet, behind several locked doors and chains; Nicky is peeping out from the closet and just wants to be buddies with Rod, no matter what his sexual predilections.Nicky Rod is so repressed that he eventually chucks Nicky out, who ends up begging on the street. Neighbourly advice and self-realisation eventually win over Rod’s self-delusion, he accepts Nicky back, and all three live happily ever after.

Matthew J HenryOther characters populate the street – real humans! In a sense they kind of bring the fantasy down, although the human/puppet mix underlines the melting pot of life on Ave Q. There is a character called Gary who is meant to be the child star Gary Coleman from “Diff’rent Strokes”. This worked fine back in 2006, but now that unfortunately the real Gary Coleman has died, this doesn’t seem to me to work so well any more. It makes it rather dated. I can see how it would need considerable rewriting to overcome this; but it just didn’t feel right. This is no criticism of Matthew J Henry in the role who had a great comic presence.

First Bad Idea BearMuch better are the Bad Idea Bears! Two evil little “butter-wouldn’t-melt” critters, who joyously come up with irresistibly bad ideas, on whom the whole of humanity can blame its mistakes. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Error. Second Bad Idea BearI’d forgotten how for years after we saw the show the first time, the Bad Idea Bears would constantly invade our house and interrupt our conversations. They’ve already moved in to our new place and I’m sure they will stay some considerable time.

Adam PettigrewThe show is marvellously performed by a young skilful cast, especially those who bring life to their puppet characters, effortlessly swapping identities and voices during the whole performance. Adam Pettigrew as Princeton and Rod does a superb job, making Princeton a real “Everyman” character and delving deep for the complexities of Rod. Rachel JerramRachel Jerram brings the infectiously goofy charm of Kate to life, making her a really loveable character, whilst having a great time portraying the languid whoredom of Lucy. Chris ThatcherChris Thatcher voices Nicky with a childish innocence, and Trekkie Monster with bestial knowingness; and both he and Katharine Moraz as the Bad Idea Bears endear themselves into being your wannabe best friends – Katharine Morazwhich in itself would be a Very Bad Idea Indeed.

It’s a technically fantastic revival. It felt slicker and more professional than the West End production we saw five years ago. Let’s hope it doesn’t go away too long.