National Operatic & Dramatic Association                               London Region

Society            :  Encore Theatre Company

Production      :  Avenue Q

Date                :  5th October 2016

Report by        :  Tony AustinVenue             :  Winston Churchill Theatre

Having seen the original West End production when it was settled into its long run and admired the whole show, but particularly the skill of its (by then seasoned) puppet operators, I was embarrassed to only be available to attend Encore’s first night, since I had booked for a foreign holiday. Would it be unfair to judge Encore’s cast on their very first open performance, when there had been no previews (as enjoyed by professional casts) and only limited rehearsal time with the actual puppets to master what was likely to be a new art form to some or all of them? Happily, I soon forgot my embarrassment since Encore’s cast seemed entirely at home in their roles, the operators of the puppets looked as if they had been doing it all their lives, and the slick staging by Director Karen Bulfin, with Choreographer Abigail Bulfin’s cleverly arranged dance steps well executed, and the Musical Direction by Rob Dowton (whose six piece band accompanied well with only occasional pieces of over-enthusiastic drumming) ensured that we saw and heard a superbly paced and accomplished performance.

As always with Encore, the technical support provided was impressive, with special acknowledgements in their fantastic programme (by Mandy Gasson with photographs by herself and FoH Manager Matthew Lee) for puppet guidance and instruction by Paul Jomain (Designer and Maker of the puppets used for productions in this country), Julie Atherton (of the original London Cast), Rickey Long and Nigel Plaskitt (West End and Encore Puppet Coach ), and a superb two storey set designed by Adrian Gee and constructed with assistance from Radlett Musical Theatre Company, Argosy Players and Hillingdon Music Society. SM Susan Jeffrey and DSM Bill Mitchell managed things backstage with hardly a miscue, assisted by Puppet Wranglers Emma Jane Barnard, Emma Berge, Georgia Dove, Emily Lewis, Aisha McPherson and Elise Wheatley, co-ordinating puppets on the two levels as windows and doors opened to show them and managing transitions as puppeteers changed their puppet characters exactly as they did in the West End. Props, nicely realistic or humorously odd as required came from Karen and Abigail Bulfin as well as Members and other societies already mentioned, while costumes (by Company Members) were appropriately anonymous for the puppeteers we were supposed not to notice too much and perfectly appropriate for the others. Excellent lighting by TS Lighting assisted by Colette White and Peter Smith ensured everything we should see was visible, with full marks for the many appearances at the windows, and spiralled nicely into spectacle for the joyous Company numbers, while JPSL Technical Services Ltd ensured that words were heard with more clarity than I recall in any other amateur show since the introduction of personal microphones. And then, a touching acknowledgement in the programme thanking every member of Encore’s technical, backstage and front of house teams, which I feel I should reproduce here: Harry Robson, Tom Lewis, Grace Walker, Kirsty Hogge, Eleanor Faulkner, Shelley Faulkner, Vicky Yeung, Jessica Carter, Isobelle Smith, Pippa Fisher, Jilly Lloyd and other friends of Encore. What I don’t see in the programme is any credit for the messages on the two Screens on the forestages, giving information pre-show, helpful and amusing comments at times during it (so we all now know how to spell Schadenfreude and what it means) and catching exactly the juvenile, jokey tone of the show; if they come as part of the package, congrats on the co-ordination, if not, brilliantly designed as well.

How does one comment on individual performances in a show where three characters are played as human beings and the rest are puppets, some operated by an individual, others by one person with someone else’s arm, and those extra arms also take over operating a puppet from the individual operator when he or she doubles as a different character (sometimes while still voicing the original puppet and facing upstage to do so)? With difficulty, except by congratulating them on their success.

With the story being about his main character Princeton, the unemployed youngster with a BA in English looking for somewhere to live, Matthew Pimm introduced him in clear dialogue as nicely shy (good movements of his character’s hand) and gradually learning about life. Showing a fine voice for It Sucks to Be Me, beautifully set, he continued to sing in almost every first Act number, although for some of them he was Rod, the uptight closet gay from nearby, with quite a different vocal tone both speaking and singing, and a wonderful delivery of My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada making sure that none of his audience would believe it, before gradually softening Rod’s (and his own) movements and finding love with Nicky. I don’t recall Princeton’s sex scene being quite as inventive in the West End, and only later noticed that when Matthew was across stage playing Rod he was still voicing Princeton in bed while his body was in the hands of another. A later change of puppets took place on stage and a further one as he exited, walking immediately back on with his new puppet with great style. Two fine leading performances for the price of one, and a great basis for the whole show.

Versatility being the name of the game, Cristina Duffy matched his performances as shy and awkward Kate Monster blossoming through Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist and falling in love at A Mix Tape before converting herself into temptress Lucy the Slut with her Special Nightclub Act, exciting all the male puppets with her sexy delivery, flashing eyes and long blonde hair swishing round, meanwhile with Kate’s body in other hands still providing her voice, all of which must have required exceptional expertise. Later, she beautifully expressed Kate’s disappointment in There’s a Fine, Fine Line as touchingly as she sang when receiving the advice in the second Act The More You Ruv (sic) Somebody.

Adrian Wilson was equally skilful in speech, song and puppetry while running the full gamut between gentle Nicky, hoping his flatmate was gay and eventually finding that Fantasies Come True, and completely OTT Trekkie Monster roaring that The Internet is for Porn from upstairs and then all over the stage (mostly with beautiful Second Arm assistance but sometimes working solo) perfectly judged for comedy – and excitement. And I should mention also the very effective Schadenfreude.

Puppetless, for reasons presumably known only to the authors, Mandy Gasson made a fine character of (Japanese, not Chinese) Christmas Eve (which surely neither nation celebrates) getting a lot of laughs in the Racist number and elsewhere, and singing beautifully her advice to Kate; Ben Lithgow Smith gave a properly laid back interpretation of Brian her fiancé and MC of the Nightclub and definitely the subsidiary partner when at her instigation they got married; and Aneka Rai, after a brief appearance with a puppet as Landlady Mrs T, made the unlikely role of Gary Coleman (former child star, now the janitor, and normally played by a female in the USA) into a really positive, cheerful character, leading the Company in You Can Be as Loud as the Hell with style and projection and putting over Schadenfreude (surely the only reason for the inclusion of a such a really unfortunate person in the cast list) with real humour to disguise any hint of the nastiness of that feeling.

Alexander Lever, Francesca Paulley and Katharina Stobbs each played their own briefer roles with skill, he as the new boy at the end mirroring Princeton at the start of the show, and the girls as the Bad Idea Bears, two very friendly characters charmingly putting up every persuasive argument to young Princeton to take the wrong decision – though that did lead to some amazing experiences for him. And as ensemble players the three had a wonderfully devised surprise song and dance sequence in the number Purpose manipulating boxes which developed faces and sang as the chorus before moving them to form a staircase and a slide, and elsewhere the tremendous responsibility of suddenly taking over a puppet as its operator moved onto another one and possibly having to synchronise its mouth with that operator still providing its voice, not forgetting the many occasions the girls provided second arms as required.

I probably haven’t said enough about the excellence of the Company numbers with up to nine people and possibly six puppets taking part, but congratulate all concerned on stage as well as the Director, the Choreographer and the MD for a really well co-ordinated fun show with great singing from all.

Thanks to Encore for the invitation, the tickets and the refreshment – and an evening of delight and nostalgia for my wife and myself. We look forward to Betty Blue Eyes, a favourite show, and wonder whether with your special influence you will be able to blag the West End animatronic pig. If not, your acquired puppetry skills will be most useful for either the touring or the amateur version of the animal.