Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
28th May 2012
The opening night of Avenue Q, the touring production of the award-winning Broadway and West End show, had its audience in stitches, but at moments had me cringing in horror. Tongue-in-cheek parody of political correctness, or potentially dangerous blunt stereotyping?
It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the artistic decisions made in a touring production: according to the Avenue Q website the show has been moving around since 2003 between Broadway, West End venues and on tour all over the world. The concept and the writing was conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and directed by Jason Moore. Whether the direction has always been the same or not – according to my theatre companion the show looks, sounds and feels identical to the London version he saw a couple of years ago – it feels unnecessary to discuss any artistic decisions made; the actors were strong (although badly miked, the sound balance seemed wildly off from where we were at the back of the stalls) and the puppets wonderfully manipulated. It was the writing and the power of parody that I wish to question.
Because the production was funny. Heart-breakingly so, at some points: the song in the second half, “I Wish I Could Go Back To College” had me laughing hysterically until I realised I was actually crying – although this may be because I finished my exams last Friday. Songs like “The Internet is For Porn” and “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” (the latter also dangerously close to the bone) were excellent in that they had the power to reveal truths by making the audience laugh. “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”, and the way that the characters Rod and Christmas Eve were portrayed then come across as truths. And I’m not sure that’s ok – I don’t think that the audience were laughing at themselves when they watched Rod the puppet flounce around the stage – of course he’s gay, look how camp he is – nor were they questioning the decision to continue with the Monster School plot-line which had already been descried as a racist idea in the first act. People delight in the maliciousness and laugh along at the stereotypes as they are somewhat lured into a false sense of security by the observational power of the other songs.
It’s a really fine line – but a script that relies so much on the parody of stereotypes (there’s no other real plot, save for a very obvious and predictable love affair between a male and a female puppet) can be a dangerous tool when combined with the power of laughter and spread to a phenomenal number of people. Call me politically correct, but it’s like the elephant in the room; no one else is saying anything.