Having heard much about this Broadway and West End hit, and seemingly one of the few audience members here not to have seen it during previous runs, my expectations are high. I remember the show initially being heralded as changing the face of high production musicals to allow for something decidedly more furry and truly risqué. The question is, has the novelty of Avenue Q worn thin?
A new UK tour would suggest otherwise and Greenwich Theatre is an excellent fit for this production. Lopez and Marx, the show’s creators, make no secret of the fact that Sesame Street was a major influence. A 2 storey apartment block set fills the ample stage and has a direct look of the backdrop for the children’s television classic under a sepia filter. The word ‘jaded’ comes to mind, which is probably a good way of thinking about the show’s message; what can happen to our childhood wonder when faced with the reality of adult life. Just like the Sesame Street characters there’s no shortage of positivity from this mixed race ensemble, by which I mean a melting pot of monsters, muppets and mankind, but its propelled by a delicious irony and plays most successfully in numbers such as Schadenfreude and Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. The references don’t end there, of course. Both sides of the stage sport a screen that interjects cartoons with naughty word play and counting; my particular favourite being the deduction of 6 night stands to one night stand, preceding protagonist Princeton’s fling with Lucy The Slut. It’s clever and satisfying, although the size of the screens feel frustratingly small.
The cast are, without exception, fantastic; versatile and generous. Stephen Arden manages to steal the show with his playful puppetry and perfect mimicry of familiar Sesame Street voices. His joyful presence on stage is infectious. Similar can be said of Richard Lowe and the fun he has as boy-next-door Princeton and closeted investment banker Rod. Sarah Harlington’s vocals are stunning and Etisyai Philip’s fluid physicality as former child star Gary Coleman is beautiful to watch in itself. Hats off to Nigel Plaskitt and the performers for the attention given to detail of mannerisms, the seamless swopping of puppets and synchronising mouth movements to another performer’s voice.
The problem is the show feels long. I was ready for it to finish before the interval. This had nothing to do with the energy of the cast but with the book. Princeton meanders through various post-college life experiences whilst trying to find his purpose. The show is really a funny commentary on that very common journey. The jokes are still relevant, and, at certain moments more than others, guffaw out loud funny, but they feel a bit passé now. Even the ones about being racist. Also the absence of any real narrative drama, as well as a rhythmically predictable first act (song, couple of lines of text, song, couple of lines of text etc), will make anything feel long no matter how good the performers or the material.
If its initial selling point was the foul-mouthed creatures we associate with children’s TV, it’s not as shocking as it used to be. Although, the many sexual positions you can achieve with only a torso and head was an eye opener. For everything that’s good about this particular production, and there is much, it’s worth bearing with the problem.