Review: Avenue Q, Mayflower Theatre, Tuesday 12 April 2011

Originally written for The National Student.

Think puppets are for kids? Think again. Styling itself as Sesame Street for adults, irreverent Broadway import Avenue Q has hit Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre on the latest leg of its UK tour, following five successful years in the West End. The musical follows college graduate Princeton as he asks ‘What Do You Do with a BA in English?’ and searches for his purpose in life with the help of a host of furry friends.

Avenue Q’s motley collection of residents, including uptight, closeted gay Rod, kind-hearted kindergarten teacher Kate and porn-addict Trekkie Monster, blunder their way through the perils of modern life, from sex to political correctness. In the same way that Sesame Street set out to educate its young viewers, the show informs both audience and characters about all the joys and pitfalls of adult life in the big city, using animations on screens suspended above the stage to amusingly elucidate certain terms.

The show’s light-hearted handling of contemporary issues is complemented by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s score of sharp and jaunty songs, brimming with witty lyrics and pop culture references. It is unlikely that you will find another musical in which characters sing about sex, racism and porn, all while cheerily bobbing their heads from side to side.

Having puppets on stage presents the audience with the unique challenge of having to watch both puppet and puppeteer, but within the first hilarious couple of numbers disbelief is willingly suspended and these furry little creatures become believable characters who just happen to have a human being attached. The difficulties involved with operating these tricky little puppets while also inhabiting a role are overcome with ease by a strong cast, who both inject life into their puppet alter-egos and enhance the puppets’ movements with their own expressions.

Young cast member Adam Pettigrew stands out in the central roles of Princeton and Rod, equally believable as the wide-eyed graduate and the highly-strung banker coming to terms with his sexuality. He carries much of the show with his warmth and natural comic timing, even recovering a technical hitch with aplomb. Another highlight is Rachel Jerram as Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut, who has received a deserved promotion from a supporting role in the West End production. Her performance is infused with wit, prompting many of the evening’s laughs, while maintaining a subtle touch that allows us to empathise with her sweet and convincing Kate.

While there are a few weak links, namely understudy Kayi Ushe standing in as a slightly self-conscious Gary Coleman and Jacqueline Tate’s Christmas Eve, who struggles to fully engage with the audience, the supporting cast are impressive and entertaining on the whole. This show’s small cast and simple set are ideally suited for touring and very little has changed in a smooth transition from the West End. I for one am hoping that Avenue Q will not just be ‘For Now’ and will continue to have audiences laughing in the aisles for years to come.

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