NOTE: This review dates from June 2009 and this production's run at the Gielgud Theatre.
After a brief holiday, Avenue Q has relocated from the Noël Coward to the slightly larger Gielgud. Nothing has been lost in transition, though the Sesame Street-with-sex puppet musical is inevitably beginning to show signs of age.
Ostensibly a show about the rocky transition from university to real life (a particularly pertinent subject in light of current unemployment figures), Avenue Q speaks to a generation who've been brought up to believe they can achieve anything, yet find it almost impossible to achieve, well, anything.
Recent English Literature grad Princeton heads, BA in hand, for the grimy yet affordable neighbourhood of Avenue Q. Taking a room from former child star Gary Coleman (if you fancy a laugh look up Coleman's biog on Wikipedia), he soon falls in and out of love with the monster-next-door Kate, and befriends the rag-tag collection of residents including porn-addicted Trekkie Monster, closet homosexual Rod and failed comedian Brian.
The songs are still catchy and the jokes are sharp, but compared to seeing the show back in 2006 (when it first arrived in the West End), one can't shake the feeling that some of the satire is now distinctly tired. “The Internet is for Porn” may have been on the money when the show was conceived, but now it's old news, while a passing reference to George Bush may garner cheers from the faithful, but engender a feeling in the rest of us that this is a show that wasn't expecting to stick around so long.
But if the material has grown slightly limp, the cast are anything but. Julie Atherton proves why she has such a long association with Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut (Atherton is the only returning member of the original West End cast), while Princeton/Rod fit Any Dream Will Do finalist Daniel Boys like a glove (geddit?) - proving why he picked up the Best Takeover gong at this year's Whatsonstage.com awards. And Mark Goldthorp deserves special mention for his gormless comic turn as Trekkie Monster/Nicky and one half of the 'bad bear' duo.
Even though it isn't quite the breath of fresh air it once was, Avenue Q remains high on my West End recommended list, and it's good to know we don't have to wave goodbye to it just yet - with the premature closure of Spring Awakening, it's now the lone standard-bearer for off-beat and affordable young musicals in the West End.
- Theo Bosanquet
NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from June 2006 and this production's original opening at the West End's Noel Coward Theatre.
One cannot be completely sure, but I think there’s a song in the puppets-for-grown-ups show at the re-named Noel Coward Theatre (formerly the Albery) that comments on a chap’s girlfriend in Canada who’s been in Vancouver and sucks like a Hoover.
The great joy of Jim Henson’s Muppets was their totally unpredictable irreverence about each other, and humans. Avenue Q goes even further down this route, showing us a cosy little Brooklyn community where it would be okay to be gay (especially if you were reading a book about musicals), where the Internet is for porn, according to the big furry monster (“rub your dick and double click”), and where “everyone’s a little bit racist”. X-rated puppetry is a wonderful new concept, a far cry from Andy Pandy coming to play, or Bill and Ben exclaiming “fer-lub-a-lub” or “weed”. (Actually, what the hell were they talking about?)
From its modest origins three years ago as an idea for television that hit the stage by accident at the Vineyard Theatre in New York, Avenue Q has been an unexpected Tony-winning triumph for its writers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book) and for its director Jason Moore, who is now getting serious and preparing Shrek: The Musical for Sam Mendes.
This is the outrageous cartoon world of The Simpsons and South Park, a place where free thought and liberation are the price of being a dummy. There’s a sense in which the puppets, existing only at the end of a manipulator’s arm, embody our own best idea of ourselves. The constant meditation we undertake in this balancing act between humanity and the inanimate is similar to how we view Greek tragedy through masks.
We’re so mesmerised by the trick of it all, that it would be easy to overlook the brilliance of the art behind the charade. I became incidentally fascinated by the vocal ingenuity of Julie Atherton as the main man Princeton’s girlfriend, Kate Monster (doubled with Lucy the Slut), as opposed to the almost totally dumb performance of beautiful redhead Clare Foster as various other characters; her voices come from another actor, mostly. And then again, Ann Harada as a Japanese therapist called Christmas Eve is an entirely human presence whose coy pronouncements would be too much coming from a puppet but are oddly appropriate in her drolly articulating mouth.
There are a few problems. Surely no English audience has the remotest idea about the identity of a black former child star called Gary Coleman (Giles Terera, so marvellous in George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s Honk! at the National a few years ago) who is the community’s superintendent and handyman. And the second act is definitely inferior to the first, and not, as Kenneth Tynan once famously said of Gypsy, because it tapers off into mere brilliance after the interval.
It just goes a little downhill, partly because the material is less good, but chiefly because we have got the point of it all by now, and we feel like moving on to the next port of call, thanks all the same. Still, I haven’t laughed so much since Sooty and Sweep had a teatime television threesome with sweet little Soo. Full-on graphic sex between consenting puppets must be the way forward.
- Michael Coveney