The Congress Theatre: home to huge musicals, major one-night shows, classical concerts. And, next month, to something distinctively different: Avenue Q arrives for a week of subversive, irreverent puppetry.
The production is a mix of live actors and puppets, and is one of the funniest, cleverest shows to emerge from Broadway - via the West End - in the last two decades. I caught up with puppet director Nigel Plaskitt, a man with unparalleled expert.
“I came to puppetry almost by accident - I worked on a TV show in the 70s called Pitkins - they were looking for someone who could do character voices and I gave the puppetry a go. Then curiously Jim Henson moved into the studio next door and a few conversations later I was working with the Muppet Show. Then, after a few other dabbles in the Henson movies, I went straight into Spitting Image. “So when Avenue Q came across to the UK, in 2006 after three years on Broadway, I seemed the natural person to do the puppet coaching for it. It has become a part of my life and although my task is the casting and training, rather than the week-to-week touring, I must have seen the show more than 200 times! I catch the tour every four or five weeks at least. Glad it’s a comedy - and one which still creases me up!”
So, how do you find the right people for a show as unusual as this? “My job starts in the casting process - a mini-workshop with a short list of actors, and then the rehearsals become an extended workshop. Most of the actors come with no puppet experience - initially quite a few puppeteers did audition, but most couldn’t sing the show! Avenue Q demands a rather unique mix of skills!”
The show was a phenomenal success at first. Does its longevity surprise you? “Yes and no. When it opened in New York in 2003, I think a lot of people saw it as potentially a short-lived bit of fun. But since coming to the UK, Q has been on the road more or less ever since. That is not chance. That is a show that has something really distinctive.”
Is it catching a new generation of youngish audience now, or is it just a loyal fan base? “Bit of both. It gets under your skin. Most people have seen it more than once - and they all bring their friends the second time!”
Now, Nigel, the Congress is a seriously big arena - does Avenue Q not work better in smaller spaces? “Yes, there’s some truth in that - but theatres tend not to sell the very far reaches of the auditorium, unless it’s a very full house, And remember that the heads of the puppets are pretty much human size. So you see as much of them as you do of the live actors.”
Is Q a Sesame Street for adults? A retort to Sesame Street? “To say it’s a parody is not exactly accurate, but it is an affectionate look at the lives of Sesame Street characters, after they’ve left the Street and gone out into the real world. The two original writers were and are great fans of Sesame Street so it is not in the least poking fun. Wide-eyed, sweet-natured Kate Monster has a few grim realities to learn. Many people won’t notice, but the show is actually structured like an episode of Sesame Street, with everybody learning all the time, and learning about life.”
The lyrics are, shall we say, pretty direct. Is there always the danger, I wonder, of a few walk-ups coming through the door and being taken aback? “I think by now everyone knows what to expect. When we opened in the West End, I remember there were a few - but very few - empty seats after the interval. The irony, of course, is that the theatre world may well be the most inclusive, least prejudiced section of our whole society, so we can afford to put in the provocative numbers, to poke people and make them think.
“The show takes a medium like puppetry and transforms or elevates it into something different and unexpected. We all assume that puppets are soft and fluffy and we don’t instantly associate them with social realities or hard-hitting messages. Just as Spitting Image was as savage as it chose to be, while still being very funny, so this show changes people’s perception of puppets. This is at one level very populist and commercial puppetry, but it works in the modern world. There are not many productions which can claim to be a genuinely unique show, but Avenue Q is exactly that.” By Kevin Anderson.
Congress Theatre July 5-9