There’s a fine, fine line…

“Avenue Q”

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.


3 thoughts on “There’s a fine, fine line…

  1. An interesting point. Do I understand that you think the show is malicious to the characters it depicts? There are unbelievably camp people in the world! Rod happens to be one of them. Are you saying that the way he was depicted is offensive to camp people? or gay people? or just people in general? and if so why? I’m really curious for you to build on your point 🙂

    Personally I think the show is the opposite of malicious. It embraces everyone from all walks of life and says “Whoever, what ever you are, your welcome”. It embraces the odd balls of the human race, and really we are all odd balls. It points fun at everybody and everything, because humanity is very funny. But never does it exploit or abuse. I think a world that cant laugh at itself is very sad. Where in the show did you sense it was malicious? I saw the show last week in Newcastle by the way, and saw it in the west end a few years ago.

    Interested Fan 🙂

    • Hello, interested fan!
      I think my response to your comment is twofold – firstly that I did indeed laugh at a lot of the show; some of the observational comedy is a real strength to the production and the truth that it depicts is perhaps both a blessing and a curse. For while the truthful parts of the show do illuminate aspects of the human race that are laughable, there are parts that come across as truths that are actually very large generalisations. This is where my second point comes in, I agree with you about Rod and as a stand-alone “minority” figure – and I appreciate that this is a dangerous term to use – I believe that his portrayal would be effective and it would be “ok” to laugh; my problem is that the project of the piece seems to be to encompass, as you say, all walks of life, and in reality it achieves only to encompass a few popular stereotypes – so we witness the ethnic minority, the sexual minority, the lower-wage-earners and the graduated student. The difference, as I perhaps failed to articulate in my review, between the truths of observation and the generalised stereotypes is very blurred, and perhaps audiences have the potential not to recognise the target of their laughter: to laugh at themselves for judging the stereotypes, the stereotypes themselves or the behaviour of the stereotypes. “Malicious” is probably the wrong term to use; perhaps over-ambitious in its attempt to fairly portray a large cross-section of people.
      I hope this answers your question, and many thanks for taking the time to read my review.

      Emma Jane

  2. Pingback: 2012: Theatre Round-Up « yellowdrama


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