More than 15 years after opening Off-Broadway – and on the back of five years in the West End as well as three hit tours – Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez’s Avenue Q is on the road again, bringing me to Reading Hexagon for the first time in maybe eight or nine years.
I’d be hard-pushed to find a much more enjoyable return to it. This puppet-ridden tale of New York folk just trying to make ends meet is good fun, fast-paced, with undeniably catchy tunes and memorable lyrics.
It’s perhaps easy to overlook the skill with which the cast operate the puppets, because none of them are negotiating a massive horse perhaps. But there is skill indeed. You might view the puppetry in three ways: just as a legless doll floating through the air, ignoring the puppeteer all together; you might combine it with the performer’s legs creating a half puppet/half human character; or you can exercise a bit of an amalgamation between the two, also focusing on the puppeteers’ faces – which are as committed to the roles as the rest of their bodies. It’s impressive whichever manner you opt for.
It’s an excellently organised and slick production, with the fairly small cast switching between puppets quickly and effortlessly. Noticeably, the terrific Cecily Redman supplies the lines of both Kate and Lucy when the pair is in conversation, though Megan Armstrong steps in to control the latter puppet – an example of the cast being efficiently deployed. As admirable as all this is, the stand-out actor for me is Saori Oda in the role of Christmas Eve. A fully-fledged and standing human being, she provides my favourite vocal and comedic performance.
Poignancy arrives in the form of ‘There’s A Fine, Fine Line’ and there’s lots of visually pleasing windows opening for characters to stick out of. The first half feels a tad lengthy, to the point where you wonder if there is in fact going to be an interval, and the animation taking place on two small screens above the stage isn’t anything to write home about, but frankly, the hilarious and rather graphic puppet sex make up for any possible shortcomings.
Avenue Q plays Reading Hexagon until 27 April.