Adult Theatre Perfected in Avenue Q

The bawdy puppet show comes to Belfast - it's not for the faint-hearted

Despite its global success, Avenue Q is a hard sell. On one hand, the Tony Award-winning show – which plays Belfast this month – boasts a family-friendly assortment of Jim Henson-like puppets, singing and dancing their way through an upbeat, coming of age story about friendship through adversity. But then there is puppet nudity, simulated sex and gags about internet porn. It’s like Sesame Street directed by Frankie Boyle.

Avenue Q explores the idea that kids’ television teaches kids they are 'unique', 'special' and can achieve anything, yet the reality can often be rather different. Using a cast of endearingly hopeless characters and a repertoire of catchy numbers, the show ponders what can happen when work, relationships and dreams go sour. Set in a downmarket New York street, Avenue Q tackles sex, drugs, homelessness, racism, homophobia and schadenfreude through humour and song.

CultureNorthernIreland was invited behind the scenes at the musical’s run at the Birmingham Hippodrome. The puppets, worth up to around £5,000 each, are under 24-hour guard, locked away in a secure cage between performances. The cast and crew rub alcohol hand gel on their hands before touching them. The reverence is odd, considering Avenue Q’s ribald nature. For instance, one of the puppets, Lucy the Slut, is dressed as, well, a slut, with leather pants and bulging cleavage.

Meanwhile, the actors – who appear onstage with their puppets, in full view of the audience – slip in and out of character, as they prepare for the afternoon’s matinee. ‘I’m looking forward to having pints of Guinness in Belfast and meeting some fit girls in the bars,’ says Chris Thatcher, in the guise of the rowdy, perverted Trekkie Monster (think the Cookie Monster on crack).

‘I’ve heard a lot about Belfast women,’ the puppet adds with a cackle. Thatcher also plays Nicky, a parody of Ernie from Sesame Street, and one of the Bad Idea Bears, a pair of charming troublemakers.

Katherine Moraz, aka kindergarten headmistress Mrs Thistletwat, jumps into a bit of back-and-forth with Thatcher/Trekkie. ‘I haven’t had many dealings with him,’ the teacher sniffs, ‘but I’ve heard he lives on the avenue and I can’t say I’m too happy about some of his antics.’ Trekkie interjects: ‘She says she’s had no dealings with me, but me heard that she wants to!’

It’s this type of knockabout banter that has helped make Avenue Q such a hit. The show, which arrives at the Grand Opera House on June 21, has garnered accolades from Broadway to Jerusalem. Initially conceived as a television series by erstwhile Muppets writers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the production debuted in 2002 in Waterford, Connecticut, and its black humour and uproarious songs have been wowing audiences ever since.

Belfast can look forward to tunes like ‘If You Were Gay’, ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ and ‘The Internet Is for Porn’. The cast stress it is an adult show. ‘There’s plenty to be said about Avenue Q in a non-PC way,’ admits Rachel Jerram, who plays Lucy the Slut, as well as Kate Monster, the closest thing Avenue Q has to a leading lady.

‘If there were little, little kids watching, it would go over their heads and they would just love the puppets. But then there’s that dodgy age where everything sinks in like a sponge, and they’d perhaps go home repeating the words.’

Though Nicholas Duncan, aka 'leading man' Princeton, and Rod, a closeted homosexual pastiche of Bert from Sesame Street, insists it isn’t simply a risqué romp: ‘It is mainly a comedy, but then there is some real heart in there. It touches some emotional subjects. The different characters have their own story, their own journey that they go on.’

And it’s not just foul-mouthed puppets in the show. Edward Judge portrays one half of Avenue Q’s human couple, Brian and Christmas Eve, while Brum’s own Matthew J Henry plays slumming-it landlord Gary Coleman – yes, that Gary Coleman, of Diff’rent Strokes fame.

‘When they devised the show, it followed the format of Sesame Street,’ explains Henry, ‘and Sesame Street always has a guest star. And so they had to have a guest star who’s had the biggest fall, so you could see how much some people’s lives suck. Gary Coleman comes out, and says, “Well, my parents stole all my money when I was 15, and now I’m here cleaning the toilets on Avenue Q,” and people say, “You know what, Gary? Your life sucks.”’

As for the puppets, Judge believes they allow Avenue Q to get away with riskier content than it could otherwise. ‘If it didn’t have the puppets it quite possibly wouldn’t be a comedy,’ he reckons. ‘It certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny. For example, two best friends having an argument because one’s assumed that the other is in the closet, and so he kicks him out – if that was two people, in a play, it’d be quite a morbid moment. But in our show we can do that, we can sing about it.’

And, judging by the ecstatic response the matinee elicits from today’s Birmingham crowd, Belfast is in for a most sensational, inspirational, celebrational – and yes, extremely dirty – show.

Avenue Q runs at the Grand Opera House from June 21 to 25.