Avenue Q
(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 23 April)

This new staging of the US puppet show for adults has an intriguing set by Richard Evans. We are confronted by a row of brownstone houses which, quite frankly, have see better days. The skyline behind is one of skyscrapers and two surtitle boxes from time to time show video of various kinds.

The house frontages let down to reveal miniature rooms as appropriate. The storyline is simple enough. A graduate who has all the right paper qualifications and yet is still unemployed lights upon Avenue Q as somewhere comparatively inexpensive yet central to rent an apartment.

Its residents include the janitor Gary, once a child celebrity, a frustrated spinster teacher, a would-be stand-up comic, a Japanese girl (who lives with the fact that everyone thinks she’s Chinese), a porn addict, a gay who is “out”, another still “in the closet” and a whole host of hangers-on and stirrers of trouble.

Love does find a way, of course, for the three principal couples – but it takes a variety of misunderstandings and false moves to get there. It’s no criticism of the actors who play Christmas Eve (Arina Il), Gary (EtisYal Philip) and Brian (Richard Morse) to say that they are roundly upstaged by Paul Jomain’s rod-and-glove puppets and their human alter-egos – Sarah Harlington, Jessica Parker, Stephen Arden and Richard Lowe.

As my neighbours commented to me during the interval: “You don’t know whether to concentrate on the puppet or the puppeteer; they seem just to be a single person”. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’ score is all-but through-composed and their lyrics are witty; it’s all tuneful enough but not particularly memorable. The hard-working musical director for this Sell A Door tour is Daniel Griffin. Overall direction is by Cressida Carré.

Puppets have always been able to say and do things, even under the most repressive of régimes, which would earn dire penalties for actual actors in a straightforward play. So these colourful puppets can indulge in positive orgies of inventive sex to the audience’s delight (and never a wriggle of embarrassment anywhere) or spout racist, politically incorrect and religious mockery with absolute impunity.

That’s also due to the deft manipulation by Arden and Harlington in particular, both completely at one with their characters. Harlington’s sex-bomb Lucy and uptight Kate are marvellous studies in contrast. You forget about the garish head colours and torso disproportions – they just become natural, and right for the personage being presented to us.

Avenue Q runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 25 April, at the Norwich Playhouse between 26 and 30 May, at the Watford Colosseum from 2 to 4 July and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 18 and 22 August.

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