NODA review of Avenue Q

Performance: 8th November

Review by Richard Fitt

For those who have not seen this wonderful show (yes I’m a huge fan) by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx we follow the fortunes of Princeton, who arrives in New York without any money looking for his ‘purpose’ in life and somewhere to live and finds the only place he can afford is on Avenue Q, where we discover a rich variety of quirky characters are residing. All but two of the characters are in fact hand held ‘Sesame Street’ style puppets operated by unconcealed actors standing beside them.

Looking at the director’s notes in the programme I noted Lester Cooke, the director was surprised the society took this on, assuming it would be dismissed in favour of ‘a serious musical.’ I assume he meant this tongue in cheek as this musical requires some serious skills, which I can bet my pension that none of the actors, unless they had been in a previous production of Avenue Q, would have on their CV’s on arrival at first rehearsal.  It is a very funny, quirky and extremely clever musical which, if done well will take cast and crew into untried and challenging territory. In the hands of Sharnbrook Mill Theatre you just knew they would rise to and enjoy that challenge.

The set for this show constructed by The Monday Team was a box set depicting a 3-story apartment block with brightly painted primary coloured doors and windows, and for once well suited to the shape of Sharnbrook’s own stage. Props (sourced by Leisa Cooke) and furniture required for the various scenes slickly changed by both the actors and the backstage team operated by the SMTT Members under the direction of stage manager Ron Johnson. There was also a video screen at either side of the stage upon which various comic cartoons helped to push the story along at various junctures and which worked very well indeed. The 4-piece band took up about a quarter of stage left, which I thought was a great decision although it did cause a few occasional hearing issues.

Lighting by Valdis Bulazs and operated by Sam Whatley and Emma Langmaid complimented the set very well indeed highlighting both the primary colours and the puppets. Sound by Sam Toner was well cued although we did have the odd technical blip with sound loss, for example the initial safety announcement disappeared into a muffled noise but was quickly recovered by the opening scene.

The 4 piece band led by Musical Director Rod Lliffe on Keyboards with Lesley Brazel (Reed), Shaun Green (Bass) and Brendan J Rayner (Percussion) was a very tight outfit and surprised me that they covered the whole score so well with such a small band. Excellent job, except although I loved the positioning, it’s close proximity did leave me struggling to hear some of the songs clearly.

All the actors in this production had obviously put in the hours and hours of practice with the puppets and lip-syncing was pretty much faultless and very impressive with each bringing personality of their own to the puppet characters. David Russell was the bedrock as Princeton, beautifully measured performance with a full range of comedy and pathos. Jo Baxter as Kate Monster was his perfect foil and the sex scene between the two of them was one of the funniest things you could ever see on a stage. Neat touch to bring on a table to serve as a bed.

Sebastian Goss as the hapless Nicky (with Beccy Cooke as his 2nd hand) and Barry Thompson as Nicky’s friend Rod who continually denies he is gay were also an excellent pairing as they explored their on off relationship. Daisy Wayman oused sex appeal in abundance as Lucy the Slut as she muscled in on Kate’s would be boyfriend.

My favourite pairing was Alexandra Goodbody and Becky Woodham as Boy Bad Idea Bear and Girl Bad Idea Bear, wreaking havoc with Princeton every time they appeared. Jake Stevens (with Heather Allan as his 2nd hand) as Trekkie Monster was a wonderfully manic performance and a superb piece of puppetry skills. Everyone’s favourite character!

The only two characters who weren’t puppets were Mark Woodham as the out of work would be comedian Brian and his Nilani Young as his Japanese wife Christmas Eve. Both perfectly pitched performances with fine singing voices to match.

Katie-Rose Parker brought to life the character of real-life actor Gary Coleman; a little come down from his own acting days in the 80’s sit com Diff’rent Stokes – now superintendent of the building on Avenue Q; the writers even managed to get a “What you talkin’ ‘bout?” into the script.  I liked both the race and gender neutrality in the choice of actor.

And finally a lovely little cameo by Johanna Beech as the battle axe head teacher Mrs T.

This was as I said earlier a well rehearsed, very well directed with some clever choreography from Jacqueline Knighton and thoroughly entertaining evening. As a fellow thespian who was a member of the audience said to me afterwards, they certainly nailed that.  I particularly admired the gender-neutral casting for the puppeteers and was certainly a risk that worked better than I would have expected.

However, at the risk of being churlish I do have reservations, and this is just my personal opinion. To my mind the characters should be projected as much as possible through the puppets only and the actors should be in the background as much as possible, but my problem was that the action was very often being mirrored as much through the actors as through the puppets and it became hard to concentrate on only the puppets. I sometimes found myself watching the actors and not the puppets and thus I feel a lot of the humour and the absolutely first class puppetry went begging. Some of the funniest moments were for example when Trekkie or Nicky had their 2nd hands with them, and the characters were very much in front of the puppeteers who were all but invisible. I’m not a expert on the various staging of this show but that is how I saw it, so feel free to ignore me.

Finally, I have also learnt of a new position in the theatre world, a Puppet Wrangler, somebody who looks after, mends, dresses and generally gets the puppets ready for action. Judging by the number of costume changes the Avenue Q residents went through I would say the real stars backstage would be Tracey Arnold, Kaye Stevens and Sue Thompson.

Many thanks to Nicole Macdonald and Dave Oliver for their usual kind hospitality, always a pleasure to visit.