Puppets spice up the Big Apple

Life in the boroughs: Kate Monster (Rachel Jerram), Princeton (Adam Pettigrew) and Gary Coleman (Birmingham's Matthew J Henry) find life can be fun in the outer boroughs of Avenue Q

Avenue Q

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

EVERYONE'S a little bit racist is not the sort of song to get the PC stormtroopers tripping down to their local HMV to buy the cast album but in a way it sums up Avenue Q and what it is all about.

This is Sesame Street for grown ups. It is a musical that has no truck with the PC brigade meeting them  head on and not only makes you think but laugh while you are thinking.

While the disciples of PC happily sweep human frailties, emotions, thoughts and feelings under the carpet and want to build a sanitised see, hear, speak no evil world, Avenue Q, despite being a puppet show, is all about what makes us all human and all different. It's full of warmth and humanity – along with a few monsters of course.

The heroes are newly graduated Princeton (What do you do with a BA in English?) expertly carried around by his voice Adam Pettigrew and primary school teaching assistant Kate Monster, in the arms of Rachel Jerram. They meet, fall in love – we even have a live sex show involving puppets with no bottom halves – fall out, get together again, fall out . . . just like the angst of teens and early 20s everywhere.

Our heroes are the ones who tell us that everyone is a little bit racist and it is hard to disagree. Think about it and we are all a little bit racist if only we care to admit it. Princeton and Kate even tell us no one is colour blind when it comes to race.

A theme of the show is the chilling realisation that hits the twenty something on leaving college with a degree. That world of promise and opportunity, the world that was your oyster a few short months ago, where you parents had told you you could be anything you wanted, was not quite the Shangri-La you were promised.

Trekkie Monster has limited interest most of which seem to revolve around the internet and porn - which could explain the slightly startled and crossed eyes.

Jobs are hard to come by, relationships now need hard work, bills need paying and dreams are further away than ever and now that you had to make your own way even purpose and direction have deserted you – if they were ever really there in the first place.

I wish I could go back to college sing puppets Nicky, Mary and Princeton, sentiments thousands of youngsters will echo.

We even have the evil old employers we have to work for in the shape of the head of Kate's school, Miss Thistletwat (Katherine Moraz).

The opening sums it up as the main characters sing about whose life suck's most. There are the humans; Gary Coleman (Brummie Matthew J Henry), former child star now a building superintendent, Brian (Edward Judge) who has lost his job and is an aspiring comic with no material, his Asian-American wife Christmas Eve (Jacqueline Tate) who is a therapist with no clients and then the puppets. Rod (Adam Pettigrew) the gay Republican banker who refuses to come out of the closet, Nicky  (Chris Thatcher) his scruffy room mate and Trekkie Monster (Thatcher again) a grumpy old monster who spends all day surfing the net for porn.

We follow the cast both human and furry through their trials and tribulations – as it all starts to fall apart. Kate finds herself competing with what appears to be Miss Piggy's long lost cousin who is blessed with loose (very) morals, the suggestive nightclub singer Lucy the Slut – again in the arms of Rachel Jerram – in the love, or in this case lust, stakes.

Rod gives everyone My girlfriend who lives in Canada in the hope of keeping the closet door closed and throws Nicky out for suggesting he is gay at Brain and Christmas Eve's wedding and when Kate catches the bouquet Princeton panics at the thought of commitment which leaves Kate to sing the fine love song There's a fine, fine line.

The songs, by the way, by the originators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, have the knack of all sounding familiar, most are fun, such as Trekkie's The internet is for porn, Nicky's If you were gay, or Christmas Eve's The more you ruv someone (remember her Japanese origin) and move the show's narrative on a bit while a couple such as the one about the fine line between a friend and a lover and reality and pretend deserve an airing outside the show.

Lucy the Slut belts out her nightclub number Special which is raunchy enough to have Trekkie drooling at the mouth in the audience

The ending is all a bit sugary, from despair to dreams fulfilled in half a song and a few seconds but I suppose you have to end somehow after two hours and even the slut gets an instant happy ending in this one!

It is strange how you start to warm to, or at least watch the puppets rather than the actors. There is no ventriloquism or anything like that here. The actor carries around the puppet , speaks and sings the lines and they mirror each others gestures and none of the seven strong cast could be faulted.

The puppets add an air of childish innocence which allows the script to throw in a bit of swearing and crudity, the aforementioned live puppet sex and even enter areas which would be difficult or demand too much explanation and debate in a human world and most of it works.

The four piece band, under musical director Toby Higgins are excellent and the  set design by Anna Louizos, which provides everything from a night club to the Empire State Building in it's three tenements is both interesting and remarkably flexible. Two video screens with play school graphics add to the innoucent charm.

The show has been running in London since 2006 and this tour will help enhance its reputation as a fresh, funny, lively musical. To 21-05-11. 

Roger Clarke

*Avenue Q is a mythical, multi-racial community somewhere in the outer reaches of New York City in the musical but does actually exist deep in Brooklyn a few blocks from Coney Island and Brighton Beach. Princeton had started off looking for somewhere to live at Avenue A, which is in the East Village in Manhattan and reached Avenue Q before finding properties he thought he could afford.

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