By Jessica Siddell
For their final show of a highly successful year, DULOG ambitiously took on Avenue Q, a musical dominated by puppets. Avenue Q follows Princeton, a recent graduate forging his way in the world, trying to determine his ‘purpose’. The musical focuses on the interactions of the characters who live on Avenue Q, where they experience life’s highs and lows. What must first be addressed is Producer Tom Mack’s decision to create a Snapchat filter for the show. This was inspired and likely to serve as a turning point for advertising in Durham Student Theatre.
Charlie Keable’s set design was impressive and clearly inspired by its Broadway roots. I really enjoyed the creative approach to the bed. I was also impressed by the efficiency of the stage crew in set changeovers. Whilst the set was well-made, some props were disappointing, such as a high-vis jacket emblazoned with Durham being used and Gary Coleman handing over some keys to Princeton which did not exist. There were also some deviations from the original lyrics which were unnecessary and did not suit the musical’s setting of New York, notably switching out “frat boy” with “Tory” in ‘Schadenfreude’.
Sam Baumal (Princeton) has an outstanding voice. Though seeming initially nervous, Baumal quickly settled into his role, creating a compelling Princeton. Similarly, Jen Bullock (Kate Monster) was impressive, although she could afford to bring more variation and emotion to the role. The relationship between Nicky and Rod was captured brilliantly by Charlie Keable and Joe McWilliam, respectively. Keable’s slightly clueless Nicky complimented McWilliam’s straight-laced Rod, and their chemistry and relationship was palpable and convincing. The Bad Idea Bears (Lily Edwards and Louise Webster) provided some superb comic moments, although they should be wary to ensure that they articulate fully and not talk over each other too much. Edwards, Bianca Watts and Webster excelled in their roles in accompanying some of the bigger puppets. Watts accompanying Keable, and Edwards accompanying Trekkie Monster (Freddie Collings) were excellent as their expressions, aided the character development, and were coordinated well with their partner.
Another exceptional performance was provided by Finola Southgate as Lucy the Slut. She was both sassy and pitch-perfect, leaving the audience astounded with her rendition of ‘Special’. Alex Prescot should also be commended for his portrayal of Brian, with an awkwardness which fitted the role perfectly. The supporting actors should be wary not to overact. Though undoubtedly talented, some actors seemed somewhat miscast in their roles. There were also moments where the actors were anticipating lines, which meant that some lines became nonsensical because the preceding comment had not been finished, and at other points, other lines which should have been cut-off earlier but simply were not. As a general rule, members of the cast did a fantastic job of interacting with their puppets and controlling them, although there were times when they had difficulty moving the puppets in sync with what they were saying. Occasionally, some of the actors held the puppets in awkward and unnatural positions.
The actors, however, were let down by their tech. Largely, Gary Coleman (Orrienne Edward) and Collings could not be heard by audience members, and some punchlines simply made no sense because the preceding joke went unheard. This was incredibly disappointing, particularly with regards to Collings, whose performance was both hilarious and heart-warming. There was also a large discrepancy between the volume of mics during dialogue and during songs. The band could have afforded to be quieter, as at times even lines of songs were lost. The sound effects were also occasionally deployed wrongly.
The lighting design was ambitious, and generally worked well. However, there were several moments where actors were unlit and some choreography went unseen as it was in the dark. Some transitions between scenes were very slow, noticeably when the set was prepared and actors were ready onstage for the next scene to start. This was made considerably more obvious with lighting changes and musical transitions which seemed to go on too long.
Will Emery provided great choreography to the piece. He especially excels in tailoring each number to each character, which was refreshing to see and shows a great deal of thought. Although there were moments where the actors struggled to keep up with the pace of the music, overall, Becky Brookes’ musical direction was brilliant and the harmonies in the group numbers were fantastic. There is no doubt that every actor knew what they were doing both musically and choreographically, and such coordination and certainty must be attributed to Emery, Brookes and Director, Matthew Elliot-Ripley.
Avenue Q is a good show, and had some shining moments. Whilst it has the makings of being great, there is still some polishing to be done. I have no doubt that it will improve throughout its run.
Photograph: Samuel Kirkman