Avenue Q @ Gielgud Theatre, London

cast list
Daniel Boys, Mark Goldthorp, Julie Atherton, Christopher Fry, Edward Baruwa, Joanna Ampil

directed by
Jason Moore
Of all the consequences of George Bush leaving office, the fact that the writers of a Broadway puppet-based musical would have to tweak a lyric was probably one of the least earth-shattering.

But that was in fact the case – Avenue Q‘s closing ode to ambivalence, compromise and mild optimism For Now contained the line “George Bush is only for now”, and replacements including “recession”, “your mother-in-law” and even “this show” were all considered.

In the end, though, they opted simply to swap “is” for “was”, and why not – it’s probably best not to play around too much with a show that is already rather wonderful.
Opening in its new home, the Gielgud Theatre then, very little has changed about Avenue Q. It might seem strange to say of a show where puppets are the stars that it doesn’t have many gimmicks, but in terms of the staging, that is entirely the case, and as such Avenue Q could make most theatres its home.

The look of the puppets instantly brings to mind Sesame Street, but in fact the relationship between the stage show and the TV show goes a lot deeper than that. Sesame Street attempts to help children learn how to grow up emotionally as well as educate and entertain, and that’s just what this musical is about only transposed twenty years later in a person’s life.

It charts the confusion, fears, and struggle for identity and purpose that young people fresh out of college or university very often feel, and little cartoon films that punctuate it try to help the characters along, just as similar cartoons are created in the TV show to help young children.

It’s not all twenty-something angst, of course, though. This is essentially a fun, funny show that wants you to leave the auditorium as happy as possible, without suggesting that things are going to be happily ever after (but maybe happily “for now”.) Irreverent but ultimately rather good-natured songs such as Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist and Schadenfreude go down a storm, and the central love story between Princeton and Kate Monster – both puppets – is genuinely aww-enducing if a little sickly at times.

The real joy of having the puppets operated by people in full view of the audience is that there are always two performances to joy for every character on stage. It really isn’t long before you start watching the puppets rather than their counterparts, but it’s good to sometimes switch your focus back to the men and women in all-black clothing to see how they interpret the movements and emotions of their characters.

In the case of Julie Atherton, that focus is often pulled anyway, as she is such an engaging performer, and imbues Kate and the Lucy The Slut with such wonderful comic timing. She is more than ably supported by the rest of the cast, though notably Daniel Boys and Mark Goldthorpe, who has a Cookie Monster-style voice down to such a tee that the Jim Henson Workshop would surely be happy to have him on staff.

It might be easy to say that Avenue Q is simply a smutty Sesame Street, and there are certainly elements of that. But in reality, the stage show retains much of the heart of the iconic programme, and is as much a paean to it as a parody. Warm, very sweet and anxious that we all just accept who we are and try to get along, its ideals are not so far removed from those of its main inspiration as it tries to make out.

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