Avenue Q, Noël Coward Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

A Tony Award-winning Broadway musical starring Muppet-style puppets? That's right, and at the glittering premiere of the West End transfer of Avenue Q, the cream of the British puppet community came out in a show of solidarity with their American cousins. Sooty posed for photographers with his long-time squeeze, Sue. Stepping from his white-and-blue limo, Andy Pandy was mobbed by hysterical fans. Sweep's personal bodyguard threw a punch at a well-known celebrity-puppet stalker and, interviewed for breakfast television, Bill and Ben were full of typically lucid praise.

You think I'm making this up? Oh well, all right, I am. If any of these creatures had indeed been present, there are parts of Avenue Q that would have curled their fur and snapped their strings. Here we see puppets having noisy, graphic sex (not easy when you only exist from the waist upwards) and extolling porn as the main point of the internet ("Grab your dick/ And double-click/ For porn") and admitting that Everyone Is a Little Bit Racist ("Ethnic jokes may be uncouth/ But people laugh [sotto voce] because they're based on the truth...").

With a jaunty, if generic, score by Robert Lopez and smart lyrics by Jeff Marx, the show applies the look and format of Sesame Street to the college-educated, but un- successful twenty- and thirtysomething denizens of a low-rent neighbourhood in New York and it gets a lot of comic mileage out of the mismatch between the bright, morally improving conventions of children's TV and the uncertainties and compromises of adult life.

What's appealing about the piece and Jason Moore's enjoyable production is the total absence of jaded cynicism. What's less attractive is the lack of any real bite. Compared to Jerry Springer: the Opera, another satiric spin-off from television, Avenue Q is about as genuinely subversive as Friends. I liked it, all the same. Most of the human cast have to pull off the extraordinary feat of acting and singing and passing as American while manipulating their puppet alter ego and several have to do so in a variety of roles. Technically, they are superb.

Jon Robyns is a delight as both Princeton, the bright-eyed graduate newcomer seeking a "purpose", and Rod, the uptight Republican investment banker and closet gay who's love-stricken for his room-mate. Ann Harada is in droll chandelier-shattering voice as the Japanese therapist who puts the pencil in Rod.

I'm not sure that English audiences will get all the references (not everyone may know of the real-life former black child star, Gary Coleman, who, played by another actor, is now, symbolically, the block's superintendent?).

But the spirit of Avenue Q is a humane and healthy. After all, it's not every show that manages to be tongue in cheek and hand on heart, while having its arm up a puppet's bum.

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