Avenue Q, New Theatre Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The multi-award-winning mature muppet musical makes a glorious return to the New Theatre after their much-lauded 2012 and 2016 runs, not to mention their monumental success across the pond. The premise: in a world populated by humans and puppets, the musical follows the ragtag residents of the eponymous street in New York City, an area so decrepit that the locals view Hell’s Kitchen as a step-up. Directed and choreographed by Cressida Carré, its an entertaining blend of the nostalgic and the now, with the melodies recalling those iconic Muppet Show tunes while the lyrics bemoan the ‘warts and all’ anxieties of modern existence.

Avenue Q’s colourfully crass approach to social commentary via meta musical parody pitches it somewhere between Sesame Street and South Park, with its closest contemporary being the tunefully tragicomic Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Thematically, the show is emotionally ambitious and surprisingly nuanced in its portrait of modern life, demonstrated by the depressingly relatable What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?/ It Sucks to Be Me, the hilariously realised The More You Love Someone (The More You Want to Kill Them) and utterly hysterical highlight The Internet is for Porn.

Even though its references are rather dated (it did premiere in 2003, after all), the show’s tales of millennial angst are still relevant sixteen years later, with characters unsuccessfully searching for direction in life (Purpose) or lamenting the endless cycle of love gone wrong (It’s a Fine, Fine Line). These fantastic numbers hit home in unexpected ways, and pepper in moments of poignancy amid the calamitous crudity on display most of the time – case in point, an extended instance of puppet-related rumpy-pumpy that evokes the infamous scene from Team America: World Police, only turned up to eleven.

The production’s raucous energy is thanks largely to its superb cast, with standout performances by Lawrence Smith (Princeton/Rod), Cecily Redman (Kate/Lucy) and especially Tom Steedon (Trekkie Monster/Nicky/Bad Idea Bear). (The Bad Ideas Bears, played by Steedon and Megan Armstrong, are particularly entertaining – manifestations of the worst impulses that goad you to misbehave with the power of their Care Bear-like innocence). Everyone in the ensemble emotes wonderfully through their puppet alter egos (which I imagine was no mean feat, especially as they play multiple distinct roles with ease), and their Herculean efforts mean that the puppet characters feel just as real and complex as the human characters (often moreso). The gorgeously ramshackle set, designed by Richard Evans, grounds the action in a truly transportive way, and the live orchestra is sensational.

However, there are a few potholes dotted about Avenue Q’s sidewalk: much as it wants to skewer stereotypes, it often ends up indulging them: the brilliant Saori Oda is a dazzling stage presence but her character (Christmas Eve) is uncomfortably caricatured; and Rod’s coming out story is mired in stereotypes which plays his sexuality for laughs. Even though the show is commendably unafraid of engaging directly with more weighty themes, its handling of them comes off a little clumsy in If You Were Gay and Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. Some characters simply do not work (Gary Coleman, Brian), some numbers fall flat (Schadenfreude, I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today), and some of the humour feels more mean-spirited than cheekily self-aware.

Avenue Q is a hugely entertaining musical that feels slightly out of date in some elements and viscerally prescient in others. Amidst the raunchiness and rowdiness there’s a real beating heart at the centre of the story that no amount of flippancy can hide. However, other than a brief mention of Brexit and Theresa May in the last number, it stubbornly plants itself in the pre-social media age of 2003 and refuses to move with the times. With a little updating, its already-relatable themes could be refreshed and renewed by acknowledging how the internet has become even more ingrained in our personal lives, especially the way in which it has effectively become the de facto matchmaker of our times. That potential to both enhance and complicate our already-fraught lives and relationships seems like the natural progression for such a savvy show – but as it stands, it’s an excellent, irreverent, exercise in accepting (as its beautiful final song attests) that ‘everything in life is only for now’. For now at least, that’s enough.

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