Avenue Q

Noël Coward Theatre, London (running till Early 2008)

Avenue Q has been a Broadway production whose songs have gradually gained the show a cult following over the Internet. Mind you, a friend of mine pointed me to the song "The Internet Is For Porn" and the way it's sung just made you have a big grin on your face. After checking out some of the songs and footage from the original Broadway production, I got the soundtrack CD (it was on import at the time) and loved it to bits. So when it was announced that the production was getting a London version, I was intrigued. Could the cast and crew match up those on Broadway or not, and would it carry its appeal over the water?

To summise, a quick plot: Avenue Q is where various people live, including Kate Monster (a hopeless romantic monster who wants to open a monster school), Princeton (new to the neighbourhood who wants to find purpose), Trekkie Monster (a recluse who browses the Internet for adult material), Brian (hopeless comedian) who lives with Christmas Eve (Japanese therapist), Rod (investment banker), Nicky (who lives with him and thinks Rod might be gay), Gary Coleman (yes, that one!) and it follows their lives as Princeton tries to find out about himself on a discovery of all sorts. There's more than that though, including a chance meeting at a club with the singer Lucy The Slut, along with plenty of fun and politically incorrect stuff too - I mean where else are you going to see a show with a song entitled "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist"?

The Broadway musical won the coveted Tony awards, and the UK version won a Variety award in November last year. In fact the UK production had the original actress who played Christmas Eve on Broadway (Ann Harada) and now for Doctor Who and Torchwood fans, Naoko Mori's taken the role over, just in case there's any fans of the show reading. In fact the UK-based cast seemed to have been hand picked to do a professional job with their impressive CVs in the website's cast bios. But the question is, could they perform it?

The answer, unequivocally, is a massive gigantic yes - and then some. The original songs were what made the musical appealing (as well as the Muppet-esque puppets of course). From the opening songs including It Sucks To Be Me, it's clear that vocally the performers are well up to scratch. Cleverly using one main backdrop with various entrances and exits, including signs that light up and two LCD screens which display things like "what is the meaning of purpose" and so on, there's plenty to keep an eye on.

The strength of the plot comes through, but it wouldn't be the same if there weren't people to really give the plot some humanity as well as the puppets themselves who really are operated superbly - from sex in one scene to declaring how much they love the Internet for pornography, from declaring how much it sucks to be themselves to their eventual realisation that everything is as it is for now. And when Kate Monster is alone at the top of the Empire State Building, jilted, and alone, you kind of forget that the character's a puppet and relate with the humanity side of things - that could happen to anyone but it's just a beautifully sad moment amongst all the humour. And that's all down to the whole production knowing the right moments, feelings and emotions.

What's most reassuring is that those actors and actresses who are doing the puppetering work with the main characters and giving the puppets facial expressions, that they also give their own facial expressions. This actually works really well, because it shows that they are really into the character and giving their all - even if the character's a puppet! Of course that's only part of it, the way that they do that plus roam around the stage effortlessly really make you believe that you're there - and they smile and laugh just as the audience does, which really has earthiness in abundance.

I have to say that all the main characters are performed fantastically well. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that vocally, Julie Atherton as Kate Monster is argubaly better than Stephanie D'Arbruzzo who did the original part. Julie's voice is superb, especially during "There's A Fine, Fine Line" and she really bubbles with effervesence as Kate Monster and Lucy The Slut, often doing both voices if both characters are on stage with aplomb and passion. If she hasn't already won an award, then I'll nominate her for one - because she deserves it.

It's that sense of enjoyment you feel with other members of the cast too - Simon Lipkin who does Nicky and Trekkie Monster has a great booming voice for Trekkie (perfect) and gets the laid back feel of Nicky spot on too. Siôn Lloyd, who does Brian, one of the few non-puppets in the show, is excellent, got to love those wacky shorts to fit in with the fun loving feel, and performed with smiles throughout. Naoko Mori's Christmas Eve is just the right side of mock-Oriental (as it should be), and Jon Robyn's Princeton is particularly excellent (his Rod isn't bad either, just the right side of straight laced or is he?). I should also specially mention Clare Foster, who's often the second arm operating most of the puppets as well as Mrs Thistletwat and one of the Bad Idea Bears. Her big enthusiastic smile while doing all of the puppeteering and her facial expressions rub off on everyone, and she deserves more credit for that.

Suffice to say, I absolutely loved it to bits. So much so that I don't feel I need to go to Broadway anymore and would love to make a return visit to see the show again, and I don't say that very often! If you're planning a short break in London, put this on your "must see" list. If you haven't planned one, go and plan one and see this anyway. Honestly, it's that good.

Warren's rating: 96%