Puppet sex. Casual racism. Porn. What's not to love about the shocking hit comedy musical Avenue Q?
For those uninitiated into this 'perfect show to never take your parents to see' expect the most foul-mouthed puppets you've ever encountered. We're a long way from Sesame Street in this most adult of musicals.
The story follows Princeton, a recent graduate ("What can you do with a BA in English? I can't pay the bills yet...cuz I have no skills yet") as he struggles to find his feet, and his elusive purpose in life, in the 'real world' of work after four years of college. He wanders into Avenue Q, far from the centre of New York, in search of an affordable place to live. There he meets newly married Brian and Christmas Eve, closeted musicals-loving Republican Rod and his best buddy room mate Nicky, kindergarten teacher and monster, Kate, and porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster. Gary Coleman is the superintendent and Lucy the Slut is, well, Lucy the Slut.
Directed and choreographed by Cressida Carre, a generous and warm-hearted optimism pervades the whole show. We may be suspending disbelief to spend a few hours in the company of puppets but their struggles and anxieties are ours. The genius of the concept is that puppets can get away with saying (or singing) about some of the more controversial and contentious issues which still occupy us in 2019, 16 years after the show's world premier in New York.
Lawrence Smith and Cecily Redman take the lead roles in this latest touring production, breathing life into Princeton/Rod and Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut with incredible skill. They sing, dance, shift between characters and operate the puppets seamlessly. The decision not to attempt to disguise the puppeteers works surprisingly well; whilst your eyes are occasionally drawn to the actors, our focus is generally on the true stars of the show: the puppets themselves.
The music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx are already the stuff of musical theatre legend and range from the smutty (The Internet Is For Porn) and outrageous (Everyone's A Little Bit Racist) to the touching (There's A Fine, Fine Line) and sentimental (Mix Tape). That a mixed cast of humans, puppets and monsters can take you on a thematic journey exploring racism, sexuality, education, love, friendship, fame, charity, commitment and inter-racial marriage is testament to the strength of the writing.
The much anticipated sex scene between Princeton and Kate Monster feels genuinely dirty ("You can't put your finger there!....Put your finger there!!!") and makes for some of loudest laughter I've ever heard in a theatre. Tom Steedon's verbal dexterity is amazing as he effortlessly shifts from the deep gruff tones of Trekkie Monster to the gentle lilting voice of Nicky and the high-pitched mania of one of the 'Bad Idea' bears, who dispense shameful advice to the conflicted Princeton ("Take her home! She's wasted!").
It's a show firmly rooted in America but this doesn't seem to have impacted negatively on its appeal on this side of the pond. Whilst the Gary Coleman character feels dated and 'The Money Song' is horribly saccharine ("When you help others/You can't help helping yourself") it overwhelms with good-natured fun and buckets of charm.
The final number ends on a positive but tempered message as we're reminded that "everything in life is only for now." Happiness. Discomfort. Friendship. Your hair. Sex. Donald Trump. It's a fitting concluding message to a show which does confront many of the difficulties and struggles which we all face in life. We may as well face them with a smile and laugh about them with a gang of dysfunctional puppets. This latest production, touring the UK, is a furry gem of a night out. Escapism with a very adult edge and a nostalgic trip to the Sesame Street puppets of childhood TV. Catch it if you can.