Amp Bar, Student Central, Thursday 1st November 2012
Relocating from the snug black box of the Theatre In The Mill to the larger, more spacious Amp Bar for this Scratch production based on hit American puppet musical Avenue Q, I was glad to be able to continue my unbroken run of seeing the productions by student-led society BUSOM – Bradford University Society for Operettas and Musicals. Featuring a mixture of students and graduates, Avenue Q would seem on paper to be a challenge for the society to put on, based as it is around puppets.
And naturally, the puppets weren’t exactly up to the scale of the creations of Jim Henson with most of them variants on sock puppets but all with the necessary arms and legs and they were, surprisingly, very good and varied and brought an added element to the production and though their creator, musical director Alice De Jong, admitted to me that they weren’t perfect close-up, from the audience perspective they looked great and mostly remained the focal point rather than the actors playing them. Only the larger Fozzie Bear like ‘Trekkie Monster’ was perhaps not as convincing, with the fun mask off-set by what looked like to be a rug over Dave Jennings’ chest.
With the stage bathed in a purple light and some nifty spotlights to highlight the key acts, the musical tells the story of puppet Princeton, played by newcomer Danny Sweeney, who falls in love with school teacher Kate Monster, played by Elly Parkinson, who suffers discrimination in her life through her being a Monster. Played alongside this story is the will-they won’t-they gay relationship of puppets Rod and Nicky, played by Nick Smith and Ben Bell respectively, and the blossoming inter-country relationship of Brian and Christmas, acted puppet-less by Jon Carter and Danielle Nash. As the story progresses songs are sung, relationships formed and loss, and temptations put in the way of the characters in the form of puppet Lucy the Slut, performed by Rachel Mitchell, and the Bad Idea Bears controlled and voiced by Poppy Brooks and Emily Grace Bennett. There is also room to throw in the Trekkie Monster performed by Dave Jennings but voiced by the ever vocal Anna Garlick and Joel Blakemore playing Rupert Grint and stealing a lot of the funny lines in the play as the ginger actor to the original’s black Gary Coleman, sadly no longer with us. In the tradition of the original all puppeteers appear on stage.
With a quick glance over Wikipedia BUSOM successfully crammed the production and most of its numbers into a ninety-minute piece, split in two with an interval. Though the musical felt the rustiest of the productions I’ve seen by them, with some cues missed and the occasional struggle to match the backing music, it was also one of their most ambitious and was placed in a new venue.
Lead actors Danny Sweeney and Elly Parkinson lit up the stage and were strong as the two main characters, both possessing their puppets with much personality. They would have been the strongest actors in the production if they didn’t find themselves over-shadowed by Nick Smith and Ben Bell as gay puppets Rod and Nicky who, out of all the people in the musical, embodied their puppets most wholey and at times I found myself forgetting them as actors behind. Both put on some great voices – Ben’s very Kermit-esque in its delivery – and their acting with the puppets was brilliant and stole the show really for me.
Jon Carter and Joel Blakemore held the production together from a “human” side, adding some good presence to the stage and providing lots of the humour, Joel once more revelling in the jokes at the expense of Rupert Grint and their matching hair colours, and though their musical numbers weren’t the strongest over the ninety minutes they brought the script to life. Danielle Nash as Christmas Eve was a good debut by her but she struggled to be heard on stage, though that was possibly down to the larger, more open venue, but she worked well with Jon and they made a convincing anti-couple. The sound was an issue for a few other performers occasionally, such as Ben and Jon, but it’s the nature of moving from a more intimate venue to a larger bar area.
If Nick and Ben as Rod and Nicky were the two best puppets, then they were challenged by Poppy and Emily as the Bad Idea Bears whose voices were spot-on and their operating of the stuffed-bears brought many jokes to the production and they were good throughout, especially in adding background jokes. It was also great to see the return of Rachel Mitchell to BUSOM after her great work in last year’s Grease and, though she was perhaps a little underused as a periphery character, brought her puppet to life well and was a great supporting character.
Anna Garlick was as great as always and, though like Rachel didn’t have as bigger part as she really deserves, her voice work and characterisation was great, combined with Dave Jennings acting though he was hampered by being hidden behind a mask for the performance.
Supporting the ensemble was the chorus made up of a lot of the cast plus Joanne, Christine and Lyndsey, who also had small parts in the production and were as fun as ever in the roles, Christine and Lyndsey in particular delivering their lines with confidence.
Piano duties were done by Freya Plummer and Daniel Swatridge, with the aid of a couple of pre-recorded tracks, and sounded on top form though sometimes the accompanying singers did lose their way. On the whole the songs, that were the backbones of the production, were delivered with gusto. Naturally it was the funnier songs that got the biggest response from the crowd, songs such as ‘If I Were Gay’, proving that Nick and Ben were good singers as well as great characters actors, and my personal favourite ‘The Internet Is For Porn’ which sounded every bit as good as the cast performance I’ve previously heard, with Anna Garlick adding her own unique touch to that.
‘My Girlfriend, Who Lives In Canada’, which previously appeared in the ‘Around The World’ concert was another highlight from Nick Smith and ‘Schadenfreude’ was well received thanks to its well-delivered and funny lyrics.
Overall, BUSOM’s take on ‘Avenue Q’ was another show well worth seeing. The puppets had been well put together and the actors behind them helped bring them to life, in particular Nick Smith and Ben Bell who were my personal stars of this particular show. Leads Danny Sweeney and Elly Parkinson were great choices for the larger roles, and Jon Carter and Joel Blakemore brought their great brand of humour to their production as always. Anna Garlick and Rachel Mitchell, who always excel whenever I’ve seen them continued to do so but felt a little underused here, and Poppy and Emily similarly had not as much stage time but lit it up when they did. Danielle Nash made a great impression as part of her role and Alice, as director, Catrina Lodge as Musical Director and Naomi Fowler as Producer, pulled it all together into a sharp and punchy ninety minutes that took the essence of the musical and captured it well with limited props, puppets and stage decoration.
Plus the interval raffle was a laugh even if I had two chances to win FND tickets!
Though the ensemble could have done perhaps with another technical rehearsal in the actual venue to ensure smoothness, it was another cracking piece from the student group and they rose to the challenge of the puppet-led production and, as always, I await their next show, the Winter concert based around a variety of musical tunes on the subject of ‘Villains, Minions and Monsters’ on the 11th December at 7:30pm in Escape, Student Central.