The life lessons imparted by the Jim Henson-inspired puppets in Avenue Q are a little different from those you may remember from all those hours spent watching Sesame Street as a kid. Life sucks. Everyone’s a little bit racist. Oh yeah, and the internet is for porn. It’s enough to make Big Bird blush.
Avenue Q, Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez’s highly entertaining musical, is the first of three Broadway big-hitters set to open in London this year (Wicked and Spamalot follow in the autumn). It was also the most likely to lose something in crossing the Atlantic. Many of its references are very culturally specific (a major joke revolves around former childstar Gary Cole) and the whole thing is fuelled by a relentlessly upbeat group-hug mentality. But as long as British audiences are willing to keep their cynicism in check, then it should prove as popular in London as it has done in New York.
The premise, for those who haven’t heard, is basically Sesame Street for the South Park generation with all the scatological humour and scenes of down-and-dirty puppet love that hybrid implies. Recent graduate Princeton, moves to Avenue Q, a rundown New York neighbourhood, hoping to find a purpose in life. Instead he finds himself part of a community of flawed, unsuccessful but loveable characters including a Japanese American therapist called Christmas Eve, Bert and Ernie-alike flatmates Rod and Nicky and fuzzy potential love interest, Kate Monster.
The puppeteers are always visible besides their characters, a theatrical device that actually enhances the production rather than proving a distraction. This allows you to appreciate the quality of the actors’ performance and marvel at what a unique and difficult job they have and how easy they make it seem. Julie Atherton in particular is superb as both girl next door Kate and the self-explanatory Lucy The Slut
There’s nothing dark or edgy about Avenue Q. Despite its fixation with puppet onanism, it’s incredibly wholesome and sweet. Probably too much so for some people. There’s an attempt to inject some narrative tension into proceedings when closeted Republican Rod falls out with best friend Nicky but it’s really just an excuse to drag things out a little longer.
If there’s an overriding message, it’s that most people never achieve their dreams or find their purpose in life but if we all just were a little bit nicer to one another it wouldn’t matter so much. Basically it’s like an episode of Friends with songs (and added Muppet-fucking). That’s not a criticism; Friends at its best was tightly written and very, very funny. As is this. OK, it could do with shedding a song or two and is about as subversive as your nan’s knitting but I haven’t laughed so continuously in the theatre in a long while. It left my feeling happy inside, which is what all the best musicals should do.