Friday, 2 May 2014

Theatre review: Avenue Q

It's the musical that won't go away - it was resident at three different West End theatres, then got a large-scale UK tour, a fringe debut last year and now a smaller-scale UK tour kicks off in Greenwich (its history in That New York has similarly seen it bounce on and off Broadway for years.) Anyone who's been following this blog for a while knows Avenue Q is my favourite musical and, Hamlet excepted, the show I've seen more times than any other - tonight's visit was my thirteenth. For anyone who's somehow missed the fun, Avenue Q is the story of Princeton (understudy Will Hawksworth tonight,) who moves into the titular New York neighbourhood just after graduating from college, hoping it'll be the first step in finding his purpose in life. What he gets instead is a funny, rude and touching lesson in making the best out of what life throws at him.

With a cast of humans and puppets, the format is of a very adult version of Sesame Street, the characters learning lessons through song, but instead of their ABCs they learn that "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet is for Porn."

The copyright holders obviously have a very strong grip on licensing the show, so productions don't vary too hugely, and the puppet designs come as pretty much standard. Richard Evans' set is less elaborate than I've seen before to suit the smaller stages it'll be visiting, so the band are no longer concealed in the houses but under the stage (I lived in Greenwich for over a decade and didn't even know the theatre had an orchestra pit until now.) Sell A Door are a theatre company I've seen do decent productions before but this is the slickest I've ever seen from them, they're clearly on a budget but that's one of the few noticeable distinctions from larger productions I've seen - although whoever's operating the video segments really needs to work on getting their cues right.

Lucie-Mae Sumner is better as Kate Monster than she is as Lucy The Slut, but her "There's A Fine, Fine Line" is as moving as it should be, which is the main thing. Ellena Vincent is a low-key Gary Coleman who does a good "Schadenfreude," and it's good to see the understudies are ready this early in the run, Hawksworth only having a couple of minor slip as Princeton and Rod. The West End production tended to hang onto cast members for a long time with the exception of Christmas Eve, who had a fast turnaround - I always suspected the character's tendency to screech played havoc with actresses' vocal chords. But Jacqueline Tate was hardier than most, taking her from the Gielgud to Wyndham's and on tour, and she's back for more here to lend some confidence and continuity to the show's ongoing history (she must miss the light-up wedding dress though.)

With Cressida Carré's production sticking so closely to those before it you'd think there'd be little left for me to enjoy here but little choices the cast make provided a lot of fun - as tends to be the case with Avenue Q I went with a combination of veterans and newbies, all of whom had a great time. And I see that Carré's dared to make one little casting change from the original setup - I know the show's off-Broadway origins mean it's designed to work with as small a cast as possible, but having the actor playing Nicky, Trekkie, Ricky and Blue Bear (Stephen Arden) also take on another role at the last minute always seemed a bit much when there's an ensemble behind the scenes; so it makes sense to have Greg Airey pop out from behind the flats to play the new arrival. But if I'm now getting into details of doubling it obviously means there's not much to pick apart and the show's in safe hands - if you're near one of the places listed below and haven't seen it before (or even if you have) now's your chance.

Avenue Q by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty is booking until the 11th of May at Greenwich Theatre; then continuing on tour to Torquay, Crewe, Derry-Londonderry, Manchester, Leeds, Bracknell, Edinburgh, Inverness, Buxton, High Wycombe, Crawley, Blackpool, Poole, Lincoln, Sunderland, Winchester, St Helens, Lichfield, Croydon, Guildford, Dublin, Oxford and Wimbledon.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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