First Night: Avenue Q, Noël Coward Theatre, London

Muppet-style puppets and humans tackle life's most vexing issues
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The Independent Culture

A Tony Award-winning Broadway musical starring Muppet-style puppets? That's right, and at last night's 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, Soo. 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 while, interviewed for Breakfast Television, Bill and Ben were full of typically lucid praise.

You think I'm making this up? Oh well, alright, 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 because they're based on the truth").

With a jaunty, if generic, score and smart, sassy lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the show applies the look and format of Sesame Street to the college-educated but unsuccessful 20- and 30-something denizens of a low-rent neighbourhood in New York. And it gets a lot of comic mileage out of the mismatch between the perky, morally improving conventions of children's television and the uncertainties and compromises of adult life.

What's appealing about the piece and Jason Moore's bouncy, enjoyable production is the total absence of jaded cynicism. What's less attractive is the lack of real bite. Compared to Jerry Springer: The Opera, another satiric spin-off from television, Avenue Q is about as genuinely subversive as Friends.

All the same, I found it, intermittently, a lot of fun. 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 a complete success. Jon Robyns is a delight as Princeton, the bright-eyed graduate newcomer seeking a "Purpose", and Rod, the uptight Republican investment banker and closet gay who is love-stricken for his slacker 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 (who is this real-life former black child star Gary Coleman who, played by another actor, is the block's symbolic superintendent and handyman?). But the spirit of Avenue Q is 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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