Theatre Review: Avenue Q, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: Avenue Q

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy
Date: February 22 2016
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

So, a friend asked me how the latest show to hit the Liverpool Empire was, and to summarise it in a few words, I replied: “Think of Sesame Street … with sex.”

Welcome to Avenue Q, a show which both parodies and pays homage to Sesame Street, a classic children’s favourite for decades now. Some of the puppets bear a strong resemblance to Sesame characters, either from their physical appearance or from their voice. But whereas Sesame Street aims to educate young children on spelling and word definitions and the like, Avenue Q aims to emphasise the importance of some, well, different lessons of life.

This is definitely not aimed at children. In fairness, kids would find the puppets themselves to be eye-catching, but you couldn’t bring youngsters to this show. The language is a bit strong at times (case in point: one character, a head teacher, is named Mrs Thistletw-t), though not offensively so, and certain themes are made light of in a darkly comical fashion; you wouldn’t want little Jimmy to go around to his mates singing “The Internet is for porn”, one of this show’s funniest tunes. But the most adult-centric part of the show has to be the implied and at times explicitly stated sexual aspect, which is never more prevalent than the scene where two puppets actually have sex. It even gets oral when Kate Monster gives Princeton – well, you probably know what.

See, I told you this had sex in it.

But don’t get the wrong impression. All of this combines to create a wonderfully humorous and extremely unique theatre experience. Whether it’s the fact that you can blatantly see the men and women behind the puppets talking rather than acting as ventriloquists, the over-the-top nature of the many songs and subject matters (television monitors used a Sesame Street-like countdown to inform us of a one night stand, complete with a squeaky childlike voice), or the hilarious alternative takes on popular Sesame characters (as implied, one character named Trekkie Monster, a parody of Cookie Monster, has an unhealthy obsession with watching porn online), there is plenty going on, and if one scene doesn’t tickle your funny bone, there’s a good chance that the next one will.

As mentioned earlier, the show finds a darkly comical method of either explaining life lessons or highlighting some aspects of modern society that people are not willing to admit. For instance, one song is titled “Everyone’s a little bit racist”, which on paper spells trouble, but the light-hearted nature of the tune and the way in which characters of different origins become involved in the number actually make it one of the show’s highlights. And then there’s the Bad Idea Bears, who act as devil’s advocate by attempting to plant the seeds for some unwise advice in the heads of several characters, from buying a case of alcohol to, in perhaps the show’s most unnervingly funny moment, trying to convince a character to kill himself.

As for the puppets: all of them have their moments to shine, so I can’t really rate some above the others, although the main plot revolves around the blossoming yet turbulent romance between Princeton (who is constantly searching for his reason to exist in life) and Kate Monster (who dreams of opening a school for monsters), and a slightly less emphasised storyline focuses on Nicky and Rod sharing a house together and Nicky’s potential sexual persuasion.

One unexplained aspect of the show, which I suppose is part of its charm, is that some main characters aren’t puppets at all; while we do see human beings clearly controlling the puppets (although you do forget they are there after a while), certain cast members are just people, period. Gary Coleman (Etisyai Philip) is one such example (incidentally, Coleman was apparently implemented as a character in the show as an example of how life can change despite enjoying fame and fortune, with the real Coleman allegedly threatening to sue the producers of Avenue Q at one point prior to his death in 2010), as is budding comedian Brian (Richard Morse), but his partner (whom he marries during the show) is arguably the star of the show. The humorously-titled Christmas Eve (Arina II), a Japanese lady, comes out with all sorts of jokes, insults and general observations which contrast with what you would expect when we first meet her, and so you are likely to remember her more than anyone else once the performance is over.

Of the puppet masters, Sarah Harlington, who manages Kate Monster, is a very good singer, and Stephen Arden does a great job of quickly evolving into a wide range of characters, each with their own different traits and voices, at the drop of a hat. The normal-looking street set remained the same throughout, but again one does not notice this because there is so much to see and hear that your eyes are focused on nothing else.

So, I would definitely recommend Avenue Q, especially if you have never seen it before. The American production seems niche at first glance, but it soon evolves into a very funny show that is bound to have you laughing, if at times for questionable reasons. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes and the emphasis on song might be a little bit too much at times, but you will undoubtedly have a fun time watching Avenue Q. Just don’t bring the little kids along.

After all, you don’t watch your son or daughter to come home asking: “Can I get a toy of Lucy the Slut?”

Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good