Avenue Q (tour - Cambridge, Arts Theatre)
Now liberated from the West End, the show is once more touring in an almost identical format. The setting remains a collection of Brownstones in a run-down New York City suburb, inhabited by an assortment of humans and oversized puppets. While the producers are at pains to point out that Avenue Q is in no way connected to Jim Henson’s famous Muppets, its antecedence is unmistakable. However, it is also obvious from the very first song that Avenue Q is not aimed at younger audiences.
Puppet protagonist Princeton is literally the new kid on the block, fresh from college with a useless degree. He moves into a house on Avenue Q to find out that his neighbours – including humans Christmas Eve and her layabout boyfriend Brian, plus puppets Kate Monster (assisted by actor Katharine Moraz), the pornography-obsessed Trekkie Monster, closet gay Rod, and his straight roommate Nicky – are the sort of folk that perhaps you might want to visit but not to live with.
The puzzling thing about Avenue Q is the realisation, twenty minutes in, that the human operators have become extensions of the puppets, rather than the other way around. This is no straight ventriloquism – the operators are in full view, their mouths open normally, and their facial expressions mirror those of their furry charges.
Sam Lupton, who operates both Princeton and Rod on this tour, is a young actor of enthralling vocal range and ability. With skilful ease, Lupton switches character – and voice – imbuing each with a unique physicality as he does so. The equally proficient Chris Thatcher returns in the roles of Nicky and Trekkie, ably assisted on the larger puppets by Daniella Gibb.
Brian (Edward Judge), the failed stand-up comic, is a perfect foil for Arina Ii’s acerbic and unpredictable Christmas Eve, while the role of Gary Coleman – a wickedly funny parody of the late Diff’rent Strokes actor – goes on this occasion to a sharp and engaging understudy Kayi Ushe.
If you’re a fan of bawdy slapstick, then Avenue Q serves it up in spades. To endure 135 minutes of musical anti-political correctness does take a strong constitution; however, it’s difficult to see how any broadminded adult could be offended by this irreverent and quirky slice of silliness.