Noel Coward Theatre, Tuesday 20 June 2006
© June 2006
I was a bit apprehensive about seeing this show. I had heard the original Broadway cast album and quite enjoyed bits of it, especially some (although not all) of the lyrics. I wanted to see the show because it is so innovative. Yet at the same time I wasn’t sure whether I would like the puppetry, given that this was to be in the hands of four unknowns (well unknowns as puppeteers, some of them are known as actors). The Original Broadway cast after all had used experienced puppeteers (mostly from Sesame Street) for those roles. When one has watched such legendary TV puppet shows as: Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, The Secret Life Of Toys, The Ghost Of Faffner Hall, and, Spitting Image, one gets used to watching a rather high standard of puppetry. How would this measure up to that?
Opening Avenue Q, performed by the entire company. It’s a beautiful affectionate pastiche of the late Broadway songwriter Joe Raposo’s work. Now who would ever have thought that one day Joe Raposo would actually have his style pastiched in someone else’s musical!
On wanders Jon Robyns with Princetown on his arm, in graduation gown, What Do You Do With A B.A. In English? Great song, and one which I’m sure many of us can connect with, whatever our degree subject. Jon sang it convincingly too. The puppetry though ok wasn’t as convincing as his singing.
Enter the first of our human actors, Sion Lloyd as Brian, plus another puppeteer, Julie Atherton with Kate Monster on her arm. I had seen Julie on The Prince Edward Theatre’s stage some six years ago, as a very likeable Sophie in Mamma Mia. That likeability is still there, but this time it’s in her right hand. Right away we are focused more on her puppet than on her, just where we should be. It Sucks To Be Me. Another good song, rather tuneful actually; soon most of the rest of the company join in. Best of all, one really can’t help sympathising with the characters of Brian and Kate. I’m sure many of us have been in their sort of situations; and the two performers did the number with engaging sympathy. Actually this song is really growing on me.
Jon enters with Rod on his arm. Soon joined by Simon Lipkin with Nicky on his arm, and Clare Foster as his assistant Right-handing, If You Were Gay. Some members of the audience (like the couple of elderly gentlemen on my right) clearly found this song both poignant and amusing. The puppetry worked pretty well too.
Jon with Princetown on his arm wonders what his Purpose is. Here, besides a song, we also have the first of several TV spoofs (an affectionate parody of many an educational TV programme), on two TV screens which are positioned just above the stage (on either side of it), in this case illustrating the word Purpose. During the song Princetown’s moving boxes come to life, to provide a backing chorus, performed by the other three puppeteers. Around about this point we also meet the Bad Ideas Bears, a couple of hand-hand-rod puppets performed by Simon and Clare, they make quite a double act.
Julie enters with Kate on her arm, when Princetown asks if she and Trekkie Monster are related, she accuses him of being racist, he retorts that she is a little bit racist too, wanting to open a school for monsters, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, this is some song, especially when the human actors in the company, Ann Harada, Giles Terera, and Scion join in. It’s a good tune, really thoughtful lyrics, and perhaps most importantly of all there is so much truth in it. It really characterises the whole show, amuses us (especially with the little tune parody of Lloyd-Webber’s Growl Tiger), but also delivers a powerful edifying message.
Teaching-Assistant, Kate has
a chance to teach a whole class by herself, and considers teaching the children
about the internet, she starts to sing, but is interrupted by Trekkie
(performed by Simon Lipkin), The Internet Is For Porn.
This was the song I liked the least, it is so vulgar and crude. Unfortunately
it is also irritatingly catchy, like The Chicken Song from Spitting
Image you can’t escape this dance. Its one saving grace is Julie
Atherton’s immensely likeable Kate. The one character who I actually felt
empathy with during this number. The one other thing this number had going for
it was the interaction, early in the song between Kate and Trekkie, it was pure
Muppet parody (shades of Sesame Street, and, The Secret
Life Of Toys et al), especially the way Kate said “Trekkie, you’re
ruining my song”. Julie really did mange to do a voice that sounded uncannily
similar to the sort of voices that some of the great female muppeteers (such
as: Fran Brill, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Louise Gold, or
Much more enjoyable, is Mix Tape, largely performed by Julie as Kate, with some contributions from Jon as Princeton. A lovely romantic ballad. Just the kind of good old fashioned love song tune I like to find in a musical, but with more contemporary lyrics.
At a club Brian played by Sion entertains with I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today. The best performance I’ve ever seen to date from a GSA graduate. Well done. The song may be a little crude, but not too vulgar. I kind of enjoyed it.
Special finds Julie Atherton demonstrating her versatility, as with Lucy The Slut on her arm she sings in a markedly different voice. Her whole manner, including her own body changed taking on the different persona, even in the way she walked. Nevertheless, for the most part she managed to keep the audience’s attention focused (where it should be) on her right hand.
Another rather jolly
performance from Simon and Clare as the Bad Ideas Bears lead into You Can
Be As Loud As The Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love), a song I did
not like when I heard it on the album. However, it works so much better live on
stage. Naughty, shocking, very adult; but absolutely right for the show. Most of the cast are involved, but the stars
of the number are Julie and Jon with the naked puppets of Kate and Princeton.
For two such inexperienced puppeteers their performance was truly remarkable
(perhaps a testimony to
Jon continued to puppeteer pretty well in Fantasies Come True, this time a duet with Simon, whose work was also good.
Less good was Jon’s singing in My Girlfriend Who Lives In Canada. (at Brian and Christmas Eve’s wedding reception). However, part of the problem may have been Nick Finlow’s rather fast tempo, and in a sense it is in keeping with the character, Rod, singing the song; as he throws Nicky out of his apartment.
It is left to Julie, again demonstrating her potential as an all round performer, to close the first act, in traditional musical theatre style, of having the show’s romantic leads separated, There’s A Fine Fine Line. Like Mix Tape this too is a lovely ballad, and well Julie does her best to do it justice.
Act 2, finds Jon as
One of the amusing things about this musical, rather like Stop The World I Want To Get Off, is that both the romantic leading lady and the ‘other woman’ are performed by the same performer. (Julie voices, and for the most part puppeteers both Kate and Lucy). This particularly amusing when Kate hates Princeton for having a “One Knight stands” with Lucy, and Christmas Eve commiserates with her The More You Ruv Someone. This becomes even funnier a little later, but first....
Out on the street Giles Terera as Gary (in a manner reminiscent of one of the ‘Grown up’ actors on Sesame Street) explains the concept of Schadenfreude to a homeless Nicky. Giles and Simon both sing the lyrics clearly, and I couldn’t help feel what an appropriate song this was for the show. (Though for some strange reason it also made me think of such record-breaking flop shows as the musical Ziegfeld and the play Bag).
The rivalry between Kate and Lucy, all the more funny with Julie performing (or in this scene at least voicing) both characters, is played out with Kate accidentally knocking Lucy senseless by dropping a coin on her head. Truly this is something which could only be funny when done with puppets; and I can’t help wondering if there wasn’t a sideways nod towards say Vetinarian’s Hospital in there somewhere; at least given Princeton’s remark about Lucy’s head falling off in the ambulance.
I Wish I Could Go Back To College, is another engaging song, perhaps not as great as It Sucks To Be Me. But nevertheless musically and lyrically it is quite decent, and, one does feel a lot of sympathy for the characters. Simon, Jon, and, Julie sing well, their puppetry is variable.
There seems to be something of a tradition for money songs in musicals: Call Me Madam, Cabaret, and, Mamma Mia all have good ones; and so does Avenue Q. The difference is that Avenue Q’s The Money Song has a message about helping others, in it. It’s a great song, and rousingly performed by a mixture of human actors, and three of our four puppeteers.
Into the final scene, with
the opening of Kate’s School For Monsters/The Money Song Reprise,
Simon with Nicky on his arm enters along with another character, who looks just
like him, a boyfriend for Rod named Ricky - I couldn’t help wondering if this
was named after someone, - after all Sesame Street had quite a tradition of
naming characters for their personal (for example: Herry Monster, Little Jerry,
Little Richard, Joey Monkey, Davey Monkey, Louisey, and even Zoe). Nicky leads
the company. Then it’s Jon and Julie’s turn with
Overall, to my mind, the
score is pretty decent; and in some places very good. The lyrics do stand out
as really thoughtful. While Robert Lopez and Jeff Markx’s score may
not be quite in the league of Stephen Sondheim or
Jeff Witty’s book really is something. It’s funny, thoughtful, and
thought-provoking as well as entertaining. As a writer he could well be a
successor to such great television writers as Jocelyn Stevens or even
the late great Jerry Juhl. In fact Jeff Witty’s book for Avenue
Q is a direct descendent of 1960s American television advertising. The
show basically uses that style of advertising to “sell” concepts and ideas
about how to get through life (in particular ones twenties) to the audience. To
get some of the jokes it probably helps if you have seen Sesame Street
(which grew out of those 1960s advertisements, and used that style of
advertising to sell literacy and numeracy to children). Avenue Q
has quite rightly been described as “Sesame Street for adults”. There’s
a subtle affectionate parody of Sesame Street running through the
whole style of the show. I don’t usually like people parodying well known
children’s TV programmes, at least not when it’s programmes that I’m fond of.
However, the crucial difference is that the writers and designers of this stage
show clearly appreciate Sesame Street, and that is reflected in
their work. It’s everywhere, in the
songs, the style (including the video screen explanation), the puppets
(designed by former Sesame Street puppeteer
The three human actors are uniformly good. Until now, I’ve generally not too impressed by GSA Trained actors, but for once, I actually did enjoy Sion Lloyd’s performance. He made a convincing buffoon of an unsuccessful comedian, a character whom one actually felt quite a lot of sympathy for; so well done him. Broadway performer Ann Harada was another fine performance, with great comic timing. Giles Terera gave a lovely little performance as Gary Coleman. he really entered into the style of the show, and played it with due seriousness (as of course did the other two, but I really noticed it with him).
The four young “puppeteers”: Julie Atherton, Clare Foster, Simon Lipkin, and, Jon Robyns had the most difficult job in the show. Not least, because judging by their resumes they didn’t really have any experience of puppeteering before. Back in December 1978 in an interview in the TV Times British puppeteer Louise Gold (then herself rather new to puppetry) made the profound comment “Puppeteering is a very difficult craft to do really well”, while Jim Henson himself commented on the documentary Of Muppets And Men The Making Of The Muppet Show, that whenever he took on new puppeteers it generally took about a year for their puppeering technique to get good enough for them to even start performing major characters. So it’s a hard craft, and here on Avenue Q these four clearly have a long way to go, however given their inexperience, their performances were surprisingly good. When I first heard that Avenue Q was going to be on in London, I kind of hoped we might get some really experienced puppeteers in it (after all the original Broadway production did). However, if the producers had done it that way it could easily have been problematic, for if you were to have one or two performers who were very experienced mixed with two or three who weren’t, the more experienced performers could really have shown up the less experienced ones. So perhaps it was better to start out with four performers whose skills were more or less on a level with each other. There four clearly have a talent for puppetry, as well as their more obvious musical theatre talents. If you’ve ever watched footage of any of the really major puppeteers when they were starting out, then you can see a similar situation. Take as an example Louise Gold’s work (I used Gold as an example here for the simple reason that her early work as a puppeteer is so widely shown, and thanks to a combination of her being heavily used, having an often distinctive voice, and insisting on puppeteering left-handed quite easy to spot). On Seasons 2 and 3 of The Muppet Show in particular, that she had a talent for bringing puppet characters to life was obvious, but her performances were so stiff and very rough round the edges (look at Annie Sue Pig in Pig Calypso for example). Compare that to her work on the two later seasons of The Muppet Show, and even more on such programmes as Sesame Street (in the early 1990s), The Secret Life Of Toys, and even to this day in her cabaret act, or on television explaining how the Spitting Image puppets were operated. She’s so much more fluid and polished. That’s the result of experience. But the potential and talent were always there.
The young quartet on Avenue Q have potential too, but also faults (due to their inexperience). Jon Robyns’s puppetry in particular seems rather stiff. Though fortunately he can kind of get away with it, because it can become a part of his two characters. Unfortunately he also has a tendency to do a bit too much with his face, and we find ourselves focusing somewhat on him rather than his puppet. Simon Lipkin and Clare Foster, have not only had to learn to operate hand-and-rod puppets, but also live-hands puppets. They work best as a team, whether it is operating a Live-hands puppet together (be it Nicky or Trekkie), or performing a double act with a couple of hand-and-rod puppets, the Bad Ideas Bears. Alone neither of them is as good. Simon has a slight tendency to draw the audiences focus onto himself rather than his puppet, and Clare is usually operating other people’s character’s, (because they are doing two characters in the same scene). But together Simon and Clare have a chemistry, that makes you concentrate on their puppets rather than them. Puppetry (at least this sort of puppetry) has benefited enormously from some great double-acts over there years*. The best of the quartet is Julie Atherton. I thought her a fine actress when I saw her six years ago in Mamma Mia, I didn’t think so much of her in Out Of This World at Chichester. But back in the West End she is once again a winner. Although her puppetry still has a long way to go, she really is convincing. Out of the four she was the one who seemed to connect the most with her puppet, grasping the technique of performing her role through her hand. One is nearly always focused exactly where one should, on her puppet not her. Added to which, she has the ability as an actress to be convincing by giving her character a likeability. With the role of Kate Monster this is something she successfully translates into her puppetry. I’d like to see her try her hand at the role of Sister Mary Amnesia in Nunsense, I think she could quite possibly pull that one off.
All four performers are
obviously versatile, and should they want to I hope they can find the
opportunity to be successful in both fields. If only casting directors were
enlightened enough. Usually even performers who have done a bit of both acting
and puppeteering tend to be primarily one or the other. Quite a number of
successful puppeteers did start out as actors, but for one reason or another
switched into puppetry, they include: Mark Jefferis, Kathryn Mullen,
Jerry Nelson (one of the greatest singing puppeteers ever), and,
Overall a great fun, feel good, groundbreaking show. Edifying but also enjoyable. If this kind of thing sounds like it might be up your street, then consider going to see it.
*There are two kinds of great double acts, Simon and Clare are tribute to both :
Performing Nicky or Trekkie they kind of reflect the many great partnerships between a puppeteer and his or her assistant such as: Jim Henson & Frank Oz (Swedish Chef), Richard Hunt & Jerry Nelson (The Two-Headed Monster), Jim Henson & Louise Gold (The Muppet Newsreader, Captain Link Hogthrob); And not forgetting of course Rowlf the dog whom Jim Henson performed with a variety of assistants (Frank Oz, Louise Gold, and, Steve Whitmire among them).
Performing the Bad Ideas Bears, they reflect the wonderful chemistry that can exist between two puppeteers with their individual characters, such pairings as: Jim Henson & Frank Oz (Bert & Ernie, Kermit & Piggy, Kermit & Fozzie etc), Richard Hunt & Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz & Steve Whitmire (Gonzo & Rizzo, Stinky & Jake etc), Louise Gold & Jerry Nelson (Cowboy Jerry & Lou-The-Jugband-Lady, Herry Monster & Louisey, The Tourist Rats etc).. to name but a few.
Off Site Links:
Avenue Q, London Production, Official Site: http://www.avenueqthemusical.co.uk/
My review of seeing Julie Atherton in Mamma Mia (where her co-stars included Louise Gold): http://www.qsulis.demon.co.uk/Website_Louise_Gold/Mamma_Mia_Review.htm