Islamophobia, mistreated immigrants, civil war, the potential breakup of the nation, capital punishment, disturbed teenagers, nervous breakdowns and rape, you can bet I was looking forward to the return of my all-time favourite musical to the London stage: With a book by Jeff Whitty and songs by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Avenue Q is the adult Sesame Street whose fans just wouldn't let it disappear from the West End, where it ran for four-and-a-half years at three different theatres (during which time I fitted in eleven trips) before finally packing its bags in 2010. Just two-and-a-half years years later and it's back, getting snapped up by Upstairs at the Gatehouse the second the fringe rights became available.
Princeton has just graduated from university with a BA in English, and finds himself broke and in debt. He moves into New York's dirt cheap Avenue Q and makes friends with the residents, and the first act is constructed like a Sesame Street spoof, puppets interacting with humans and singing songs that teach an important lesson - although they're less about letters and numbers, and more about internet porn and casual racism. But as Princeton starts a relationship with Kate Monster, a sweet story starts to build up.
If you've followed me since the old blog you'll know there's little I haven't already said about Avenue Q. Its secret remains, for me, that the sweetness of the show counterbalances those elements that could, in a different context, cause offence, while the swearing and bite stops it becoming saccharine (plus the songs are great.) This is a new production from John Plews but it sticks closely to the Broadway and West End productions, as the puppet designs will attest to (although Evil Alex and I did find it odd to see Rod with dark floppy hair rather than his severe ginger quiff, and the Bad Idea Bears weren't quite nauseatingly cute enough for our liking.)
Will Jennings is sweet as Princeton and the closeted Rod, and has a nice rapport with Leigh Lothian's Kate Monster/Lucy The Slut. I found Lothian instantly likeable and in strong voice but you have to reserve judgement on any Kate Monster until after "There's a Fine, Fine Line" (which is where Rebecca Lock always tripped up - not vocally but emotionally) and happily Lothian is right in there tugging at the heartstrings as well.
The production follows the US, rather than the UK example, in having a female Gary Coleman (Cassandra Lee, belting out probably my favourite song in the show, "Schadenfreude.") The remaining human characters are squabbling but loving couple Brian (Tim Frost) and Christmas Eve (Shin-Fei Chen.) And although personally I have a soft spot for the aforementioned Bad Idea Bears, for most people the show is stolen by the porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster, Josh Willmott certainly throwing himself into the character (and rather sexy, I thought, although one of my theatre companions disagreed saying he has "a wonky face" - I fail to see how the two are mutually exclusive.)
Basically, what you get here is pretty close to the West End version, and if there could be anything left that would improve Avenue Q you get that here as well: Upstairs at the Gatehouse is large by pub theatre standards but it's still a hell of a lot more intimate than any of the West End theatres I saw it in before. This is an opportunity to get up close and personal with the puppets, who get some nice interaction with the audience. And some things don't change: The saddest thing in the show is hearing the opening bars of "For Now" and knowing it's almost over.
Avenue Q by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty is booking until the 30th of June at Upstairs at the Gatehouse.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.