Friday, May 15, 2015

'Avenue Q' at the Greenwich Theatre, 14th May 2015

Avenue Q is Sesame Street for discombobulated twenty-somethings.  But whereas Big Bird and company teach children the alphabet and basic numeracy, the felt characters of Avenue Q guide its audience through ennui, disillusionment, heartbreak and poverty. Sounds like pretty rough stuff? Not when delivered by a googly-eyed puppet with someone's hand jammed up its arse. 

Opening off-Broadway in 2003 and transferring in 2006 to the West End (where it stayed for five years), Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez' show has lodged itself firmly in the stage musical firmament. This touring production feels like a victory lap, the audience I attended with greeting the characters, songs and one-liners like old friends. This was my first time seeing it, but I was buoyed up by the mountains of positive press and a near cult-like reverence towards the material. "You'll be humming 'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist!' for weeks!" the ysaid. Well alright.

Set in the titular avenue, we open with the arrival of 23-year old graduate Princeton. Clutching an English BA he hopes to make his mark in the big city, but almost instantly winds up indebted, unemployed and depressed. Some sun shines in the form of lonely heart teacher's assistant Kate Monster, whose neediness fits Princeton's neuroses like a jigsaw. Local flavour is provided by the other residents, closeted Bert n' Ernie analogues Rod and Nicky, comedy Japanese stereotype Christmas Eve, her obnoxious but good-hearted husband Brian, porn-crazed pervert Trekkie Monster and building superintendent Gary Coleman.

Their various problems: finding a job, poor money management, commitment issues in relationships, lack of direction in life and simply finding a place to live, are immediately recognisable to a young metropolitan audience. It's difficult not to feel a twinge of sympathy as the characters plaintively wish they were back in college, waste their money on booze or simply mope around miserably as their dreams deflate into a saggy mess. 

Those blues are offset by the fact that, well simply, they're being experienced by puppets. With the performers visible on stage at all times, there's an pleasant DIY nature about the production. This feeds into the fact that it's just plain ludicrous to see muppets engaged in hardcore sex, contemplating suicide or grappling with their sexuality. Combine that with witty lyrics and precision-tooled deployment of swearing, and you've got a show that broadly hits its comedic marks.

This is where my problems begin. You see, while Avenue Q is undoubtedly funny, it's not that funny. For example, the basic concept of a perverted Cookie Monster is solid, but it's a character whose single joke is repeated ad nauseum. The show is peppered with these one-gag characters, so repetitive that they almost (but not quite) wear out their welcome. It's a tricky one to pin down: I can't deny that I laughed, I just didn't laugh quite as much I thought I would.

I suspect this is due to the particularly American core of cloying sentimentality that lurks at the heart of Avenue Q. It promisingly flirts with genuine misery, explaining to the audience that they were lied to as children, they're not special, their dreams will go unfulfilled and that life is a nest of vipers waiting to swallow you up. Sure that's a bit of a downer, but hey, that's life. But it undermines this by eventually succumbing to a hugs n' tears happy ending. Even the puppet that got her head ripped off came back! Granted, my sadistic lust for puppet misery and pain is probably at odds with making a wildly successful international stage hit, but I prefer my comedy to come with a blackened, corroded heart.

Saying that, there's no fault to be found in the performances. The obvious stand-out is Sarah Harlington, switching effortlessly between the polar opposites of Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, puppeteering the hell out of them and singing beautifully. There's no weak links here, each performer cramming the felt characters with oodles of personality, pathos and humour. 

Given the rapturous standing ovation that greeted the end of the show I can only assume that fans were left satisfied. I can't deny I had a good time; impressed by the dynamic, adventurous lyricism, the skill of the puppeteers and the show's willingness to dip its toe into murky waters. But it's not quite the show for me, the shock factor felt muted and the 2003-era material ever-so-slightly dated. 

Also, though this isn't Avenue Q's fault, the Greenwich Theatre should fix its leaky roof. I had water dripping on my head throughout the show!


Avenue Q is at the Greenwich Theatre until 24th May. Tickets here.

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