Avenue Q brings the West End’s subversive Muppet Show to Ipswich Regent
- Credit: Archant
West End musical hit Avenue Q arrives at the Ipswich Regent and brings with it a sharp, satirical wit. We speak to puppet consultant Nigel Plaskitt about bringing his experience with The Muppets and Spitting Image to Avenue Q
The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Rainbow, Rosie and Jim... we all love puppet shows on TV. They provide a mix of education (Sesame St and Rosie and Jim) and madcap mayhem with a dash of clever satire (Muppet Show) but on stage the blending of live performers with foam puppets gains a sharper, funnier, more politically incorrect feel.
Avenue Q blends the subversive nature of The Muppet Show with the music and sparkle of a West End extravaganza. It provides a funny but sharp-eyed assessment of the world in which we live. It contrasts the nostalgia of our youth and the communal love we feel for those shared TV moments of the past with the sharp realities of the modern world.
When the show opened on Broadway it won the Tony “Triple Crown” – Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book – and described by critics at the time as “part flesh, part felt and packed with heart.”
Set in New York, Avenue Q is a laugh-out-loud musical that tells the story of a recent college graduate named Princeton who moves into a shabby apartment all the way out on Avenue Q. There, he meets Kate (the girl next door), Rod (the Republican), Trekkie (the internet sexpert), Lucy The Slut and other colourful characters who help Princeton finally discover his true purpose in life.
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Helping the performers blend the puppets seamlessly into this very real world is veteran Muppet actor Nigel Plaskitt. Not only has he brought his performance skills to such classic Muppet movies as The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island and Muppet’s Most Wanted, he is also a veteran of TV classic Spitting Image as well the big screen version of Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Little Shop of Horrors and Labyrinth with David Bowie.
He is now the puppet consultant on Avenue Q.
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What is it that allows audiences to suspend their disbelief and accept puppets and real people can co-exist in the same world. It shouldn’t work but it does?
Nigel: “It’s a special piece of theatrical magic mixed with a touch of childhood nostalgia. The show is essentially a satire on Sesame Street, and has similar flavours, but I believe it is our connection with childhood that really invites us in. It’s the same process that allows us to play with toys, to interact with them, to allow them to speak, make them move...whether it is a doll or an action man we connect with them, we form a relationship with them and it’s the same process here.
How hard is it for an adult performer to connect with a puppet?
Nigel: “The ability to bring inanimate objects to life is something we learn and develop from childhood.
I worked with Michael Caine on Muppet’s Christmas Carol and he was extremely good at regarding his Muppet co-stars as real people. The way he reacted to them, the way he addressed them, the way he delivered his lines was totally believable. His performance didn’t change if he was talking to a human cast member or Kermit the Frog who was playing Bob Cratchitt. He also had this amazing ability to ignore all the technical equipment and the mayhem which inevitably surrounded the puppets and just focus on telling the story. Michael is well known in the business for getting things down in one or two takes but he was very understanding of having go back and do things again and again because of technical reasons and I think performers have to learn patience.
“In Avenue Q, you see puppets and performers sharing the same stage and without really realising it, you are editing things in your head as the show goes along and like Michael Caine you are filtering out the technical side of the process and just engaging with the characters and with the show.
“You are drawn to the puppets because they have very big eyes and you screen out everything that’s not directly concerned with the scene.”
Is it important to have actors as puppeteers?
Nigel: “What you are seeing is the actor giving a performance through the puppet. If you saw the National Theatre’s performance of War Horse that was clearly the case. The puppet was able to express much more emotion than the photo-real horse in the film because on stage he was being given life but actors and skilled puppeteers. Humans can express emotion but, on film, with real animals, you can only suggest it. What are trying to do with the puppets in Avenue Q is get those emotions across to the audience and if you do that then the audience will readily accept that a piece of cloth and foam is a real person.”
How did you get involved with the world of puppetry?
Nigel: “I started out as an actor and then the puppet thing kind-of took over. In the 1970s I was offered the chance to do some character voices for a children’s TV show called Pipkins and they asked me if I could work the puppets as well. I said: ‘Yes, of course’ – No actor ever says no to anything – and that was that. I was up and running. That turned out to be a nine year run, which was nice, and I learnt a huge amount about the craft. When that came to an end, I went onto Spitting Image, which I did for 13 years, and led me to the Jim Henson Company, which was based in London.
“My first job for them was Labyrinth, which I did in 1985, which led to the Muppet movies and then to the doors of Cameron Mackintosh when I was asked to work on Avenue Q. It’s all kind of linked. There are very few people in the UK who do what I do.
“My role for Avenue Q is to teach the actors how to use the puppets, how to make them work as performers, how to make them part of the show.
Is Avenue Q more than a cosy exercise in nostalgia?
Nigel: “Oh absolutely. We have a very good script, a very sharp script from Jeff Whitty and when people see it, or speak to someone who has seen it, then they realise it is so much more than childhood memories and it is a fairly outrageous take on modern life. It’s interesting to note that you can have puppets saying things quite openly that, perhaps, you couldn’t have real actors saying in the same circumstances. Puppets give you licence to make observations about the world that it would be difficult to do in any other way. It’s the innocence of the characters that give them their power.”
Avenue Q is at the Ipswich Regent from April 30 to May 4. The show is suitable for audiences of 14 years and over. For more information and to book tickets visit the Ipswich Regent website https://apps.ipswich.gov.uk