Parental Advisory

5th June 2015

It’s a puppet show, but not as you know it… Jill Glenn meets the cast and characters of ‘Avenue Q’

‘Do not touch the puppets… unless they touch you first’ say the notices on the rehearsal room walls as I arrive for a press visit to the Avenue Q rehearsal room. Some of the puppets are wrapped up in polythene, waiting; many are propped on stands, massed like an advancing army. In this cramped Kennington church hall, dominated by wall statues of the crucified Christ at one end and the Virgin Mary at the other, magic is being made in preparation for a national tour of this award-winning comedy musical. The puppets are being brought to life by a talented group of performers – some newly trained as puppeteers – who make it all look easy. It’s not. More of that later.

Created by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (co-creator of The Book of Mormon and writer of the songs for Disney’s Frozen) Avenue Q tells the story of a bunch of (mostly loveable) people living on one fictional ‘outer-outer borough’ New York street, all trying to make sense of the hand that life has dealt them. Nobody is in a good place; in fact, one of the first songs in the show is the amusing It Sucks to Be Me in which six of them try to outdo each other with descriptions of how bad their life is. Young Princeton, newly graduated, has come to the city with big dreams, a tiny bank account and an increasing realisation that he might already have taken the wrong track. What Do You Do with a BA in English?, he sings, as he searches for accommodation and work.

The lyrics verge on the simplistic (‘I can’t pay the bills yet/ because I have no skills yet’, for example’) and the rhythms are jaunty, but don’t be deceived: there’s more to Avenue Q than meets the ear – and the eye. The bright cheerful colours and gawping faces of the puppets belie the sincerity of the message. Loud, crude and politically incorrect, it nevertheless covers just about everything from racism and homophobia to fear of commitment and self-deception, and has a suitably schmaltzy, positive conclusion.

Jessica Parker, who performs the roles of Mrs T and a Bad Idea Bear, and is the company’s resident director on tour (essentially making her responsible for making sure that everything goes according to plan when they’re out on the road) is returning for her second year. She loves the piece, and I feel my natural scepticism breaking down in the face of her genuine warmth towards the show. “It has so much heart,” she says, “so much emotion. Everyone can relate to it.”

It’s a coming-of-age story, she declares. “Princeton is looking for his purpose, his mission in life, and he meets this community to help him through.” She laughs. “Consider it Friends meets Sesame Street… There are messages in all the songs. So it’s ‘today we’re going to teach you about racism, today we’re going to teach you about porn’…”.

If you think the concept sounds curious, that’s probably a fair reaction. But this is a show that works on lots of levels. You can enjoy it as pure entertainment – what’s not to like about a group of puppets strutting their stuff? – but it also leaves the audience with plenty to think about. And it’s definitely not for children, cute as puppets such as the Bad Idea Bears undoubtedly are. This one certainly comes with a ‘Parental Advisory’ warning attached; ‘suitable for audiences 14+’ is the recommendation from the Watford Colosseum, where the show will be on stage for four performances at the beginning of July.

The cast consists of three human characters and eleven puppet characters, who interact as if they were human. Some of the puppets are rodded, with a head, a torso and two arms, at least one of which is movable. The puppeteer controls the puppet's head and mouth with one hand, and holds one or two rods, connected to the moveable arm or arms in the other. Others are ‘live-hands puppets’, manipulated by two people (thus leading to odd sentences such as ‘I play half of Nicky…’). The speaking puppeteer controls the puppet's left hand, head and mouth, while the second operator, who is silent, controls the right hand. “The left hand,” says puppet coach Nigel Plaskitt, a former Spitting Image puppeteer, “literally doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

The rehearsal room is crammed with performers and puppets (to make life more complicated, there’s more than one of each puppet, and some incarnations aren’t dressed the same as each other), sound equipment, lighting rigs and enormous mirrors. Stephen Arden (Nicky/TrekkieMonster) tells me that these are vital to the slow, painstaking rehearsal process. “The challenge is to get all the emotions and reactions you have as an actor into this puppet, and having mirrors really helps. You can see the little gestures – the puppet looking sad or surprised or inquisitive. It’s a good way to work out what you need to do with your hands to deliver that. You’re putting all your performance skills into another body.”

The puppets have to appear real. “If we look happy,” says Jessica of herself and her fellow performers, “then the puppets will look happy. If we look shocked, they will look shocked. It’s our peripheral faces that tell the story.”

At the same time, the performer needs to melt into the background; it’s not about them. It takes a few minutes for the puppeteer to become invisible but when they have, you really don’t see them, despite their significance. Just like the merging of speech and subtitles on a foreign language film, puppet and performer become something more than the sum of their parts.

It’s very physically demanding and highly choreographed. “Every movement, every gesture has to be learned and co-ordinated, especially when there are two of you operating one puppet,” Jessica emphasises. “It’s a very close relationship, and it’s hard work.”

I can go along with this – later in the day us journalists have the opportunity to join in a short puppet workshop under the instruction of Nigel Plaskitt, and the complexity of trying to manage the movement of half a puppet is extraordinary; we feel both seriously challenged and unaccountably foolish. It’s surprisingly difficult to keep the upper part of our hands still. The evident amusement on Nigel Plaskitt’s face as we perform the most basic of manoeuvres and chant The Internet is for Porn suggests our discomfort is justified. He does admit, though, that puppetry is a difficult skill to master. It’s not much consolation.

There is, it’s immediately apparent, a particularly strong sense of community amongst the cast. Jessica puts it down to how closely they have to work together. “You form such strong bonds. You’re side by side with your partner. Literally.” Off-stage, she and co-puppeteer Stephen Arden talk across each other, and finish each other’s sentences. “It’s a great show…You’ll leave feeling uplifted and…” he says, and Jessica cuts in with “…and you’ll go home happy.”

They’re right, of course, but be warned: quirky and charming as Avenue Q is, it isn’t for the faint-hearted. You have to be open to being surprised, and having your views challenged. As Stephen says, “It’s not like any other musical. It’s a format that people are familiar with, like watching animated TV shows – everyone grew up watching The Muppets or Sesame Street – so you’re instantly transported. You don’t expect the profanity and swearing, and audiences are like ‘Oh my god!’ as the show unfolds…”

Avenue Q is at Watford Colosseum on Thursday 2 and Friday 3 July at 7.30pm,
and on Saturday 4 July at 5.30pm and 8.30pm.

Suitable for audiences aged 14+.

See www.watfordcolosseum.co.uk for tickets and booking details.

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