Who? Avenue Q
What? Sesame Street goes X-rated!
When? 17th March 2011
Where? Norwich Theatre Royal
Why? Part of the UK leg of the World Tour
Remember how hilarious it was hunting down the infamous lost “adult” episode of Rainbow when you were younger and sniggering at the usually joyous and innocent George, Zippy and Bungle acting like smutty, foul-mouthed goons? Well now you don’t have to – because Avenue Q delivers exactly the same culture clash in an adults-only musical stage show extravaganza!
The Broadway production’s plot is a real potpourri of personal and worldly issues played out satirically by products of our childhood. The titular locale – essentially a downtrodden take on Sesame Street – is in an outer borough of New York, where furry “monsters” interact with human residents as they learn many life lessons associated with growing up: leaving university, finding a purpose in the real world, coming to terms with your sexuality, juggling a career with commitments, racism, falling in love, etcetera. Porn also comes up a lot, too. Naturally.
The scores of musical numbers are catchy, wittily-worded clap-along treats: “What Do You Do with a B.A. In English” hit a real chord with me, while “It Sucks To Be Me” and “The Internet is For Porn” had the audience in stitches. “Schadenfreude” – about deriding amusements from other’s misfortune – was the funkiest number, however, some songs – such as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” – seemed awkwardly shoehorned-in simply to make a point. It certainly makes for an interesting, if scattershot, “educational” experience.
Some characters are portrayed by puppets, held and performed by visible-but-ignored actors, who interact with other players performing their roles in the more traditional sense. It does take some getting used to, especially as the lead human Princeton (Adam Pettigrew) is a puppet, while other humans are not. Trekkie Monster (Chris Thatcher), who stays in his room downloading porn all day, is a vulgar riff on Sesame Street’s unruly Cookie Monster, while best friends Rod (Pettigrew again) and Nicky (Thatcher again) vocalise the latent homoeroticism forever associated with Burt and Ernie.
Most disconcerting for me was Avenue Q’s go-to handyman Gary Coleman (Matthew J. Henry). Yes, that Gary Coleman. A fictionalised representation of a genuine celebrity lampooning his fall from grace since his status as a child star faded. I wasn’t aware before the show, but I was fairly certain that the real Gary Coleman did not have a hand in writing the script (he did not), so I couldn’t quite work out why he was there; it didn’t really fit with the rest of the production. Considering the Diff’rent Strokes star died just last year, it was also uncomfortable sniggering at him, even if it is a sardonic exaggeration.
Kudos to the hard-working puppeteers who sing, act and emote via their hand-held characters fantastically. But given their visibility it does irk when puppets are traded to substitute performers while the puppeteers portray multiple characters – even if they do still throw their voices to retain continuity. Video screens intermittently slid down to screen childishly animated skits; they garner a minor chuckle but are ultimately unnecessary, as was an uncomfortable descent into the audience to coerce viewers into “raising funds” for lead female Kate Monster’s (Rachel Jerram) dream school.
In a CR@B Shell: Your inner child will laugh itself silly at watching puppets sing, swear and shag (!!) on stage, but the continuous attempts to parody a multitude of “enlightening” life lessons leads to a barmy, disjointed and uneven show.
* The photographs are not from the Norwich show and actors on the night differed from those shown.