20 September to 5 October 2019 / Napier Operatic Society, Tabard Theatre / By Jess Soutar Barron
Ever wondered what happened to Ernie and Bert, or Abby Cadabby or Snuffleupagus, or Different Strokes’ Gary Coleman once we all grew up and left them behind? We, the 80s generation raised on TV, technicolour affecting our aesthetic, saccharine lessons on ‘purpose’ and ‘commitment’ our precursor to today’s Mindfulness. Napier Operatic Society’s latest show contemplates where the muppets are now that we are middle aged. They are middle aged too; washed up, unemployed, living in a tenement in a decrepit ghetto a few status points below the Bronx on Avenue Q.
This is a bold, brash and brazen foray into debauchery for NOS: a musical that includes such hits as “It Sucks To Be Me”, “I’m Not Gay” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”, all delivered in that Polly-Annaish manner Big Bird served up in the seventies.
James McCaffrey is Broadway brilliant in voice and technique, with Alanah Shupbach an able foil. Her singing ability is remarkable, especially when she plays two parts interacting with each other, without missing a beat. John Graham and Bridie Thomson lend a hand (literally) as puppet masters, with Graham channelling with gusto that raspy twang that brings back all the best Grover memories.
Avenue Q demands a lot of its cast: man-handling puppets, singing and acting two symbiotic roles: a kind of clown school minimalism in body with a mis-matched animation in voice. It takes stamina, ambidexterity and a certain strength in the wrist – like all good adults-only fun.
As with the entirety of the muppet oeuvre there are human characters too, all of whom are bigger muppets than the muppets themselves leaving the muppets to present as even more human. Hayley Munro gives a stellar performance as a Japanese therapist with multiple degrees and no clients. She riffs on all the best xenophobic tropes and it’s hilarious. Simeon Ria and Jeremy Randal complete the cast, and although both provide excellent set ups for the jokes of others they tend to be upstaged by all that fur and bobble-eyed brilliance.
Like all good after school shows the simplest ideas are possibly the hardest to pull off but the most entertaining to witness: The harmonising cardboard box set is terrific, the one-night stand montage terrifying. Once seen, never forgotten and certainly something that only happened behind-the-scenes on Sesame Street. Some of the show is so awkward, even the muppets are taken aback. In fact, the awkward silences that fall flat are the funniest bits, where in the TV world of our childhood they would have been layered up with canned laughter.
Avenue Q has deep moments, but disguised under sprinkles and whipped cream it’s cheek-achingly funny and well worth a night out.
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