Avenue Q – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
By Eve Luddington, July 2019
Think The Muppets and that wholesome American TV puppet show designed to instil good attitudes in children, Sesame Street. Flavour with huge dollops of bawdy humour and add spicy songs with titles like ‘It Sucks to Be Me’, ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ and ‘You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love)’. This, in a nutshell, is Avenue Q, a wild and wacky puppet musical strictly for adults.
One of my friends saw the first production in a small off-Broadway theatre, in 2003. She loved it. So did the critics. The show soon transferred to Broadway, won multiple awards and, since then, has been produced around the world. Now it’s at Sheffield Lyceum as part of a UK tour, directed by Cressida Carré. The friend who saw the first production came with me to this one, too.
Princeton, an English graduate – a yellow-faced puppet – moves into an apartment on a vaguely shabby New York Street, Avenue Q, seeking ‘Purpose’. The loose storyline shows the lessons he learns in love and life from his neighbours, a motley collection of 12 or so human and puppet characters. They include Christmas Eve, a Japanese psychotherapist with no clients (human); lovesick Kate Monster and her relative Trekkie Monster, a hairy beast obsessed with porn; (puppets), and Gary Coleman, the caretaker of the apartments who’s not only human but named after a real American actor and comedian. Not to mention the deliciously named Lucy the Slut and two Bad Idea Bears, the mischief-makers among this naughty lot.
Key to the raunchy fun is that puppets are so cuddly and appealing they can be totally outrageous and get away with it. Co-creators Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez have exploited this to the nth degree in their kaleidoscopic take on social attitudes and hang-ups. When cute puppets have full-on sex in various positions and joke about blacks, Jews, Republicans and gays, just for starters, it is shocking – but strangely, not offensive. And when these puppets are depressed, lonely or fearful, they can arouse just as much sympathy as humans. They’re a brilliant vehicle for poking fun at racism, homophobia and all manner of social ills, and that’s what Avenue Q does. Glowing through the cheeky smut are two simple messages; live and let live, and be kind. It’s a very clever musical.
The production is impressive. Cressida Carré’s direction exploits the comedy and poignancy with imaginative flair. A versatile cast of 11 sing and act with great energy and enthusiasm, relating brilliantly to the audience and skilfully making it seem entirely natural that humans and puppets can be friends and neighbours.
The puppets, fabulous cartoon-like creations, are designed by Paul Jomain and all hand-stitched. They’re voiced and vividly brought to life by actors who also take on the various characters’ expressions with great gusto: Tom Steedon almost becomes an extension of his puppets. Lawrence Smith and Cecily Redman, each playing two contrasting puppet characters, carry the main story and are compelling.
The human characters, played by Saori Oda, Oliver Stanley and Nicholas McLean, are as OTT as the puppets. Saori Oda’s Christmas Eve, mercurial, high-kicking and almost operatic, is wonderful.
Richard Evans’ set design is simple and effective. The Empire State Building, actually a cartoon silhouette of it, dominates the backdrop and is the setting for one of the story’s most outrageous incidents. In front of it is the facade of a Brownstone terrace: characters poke out their heads, or other bits of their body, from some of the windows; others open up to reveal miniature rooms for interior scenes to be played against.
All said, I’m sad to say the show itself didn’t tickle my fancy. I struggled with some of the American accents and a couple of shrill voices, as did my friend whose enjoyment was somewhat marred. I don’t think it would have mattered to me if I’d been engaged but I simply wasn’t moved. Most of the people around us were howling with laughter and caught up with the pathos. Judging by that, it looks as if Sheffield Lyceum is hosting another big audience hit.