Puppet master heads down town to Avenue Q

Bad Idea Bears
Bad Idea Bears
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TOO old to hang out on Sesame Street? Then head down to Avenue Q.

Puppets and actors merge at the Edinburgh Playhouse next week when the smash hit Broadway musical Avenue Q comes to town.

Bad idea bears

Bad idea bears

The brainchild of Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q is described as a ‘coming-of-age parable satirising issues and anxieties associated with entering adulthood’.

“It’s also a lot of fun, as long as you have an open mind,” adds the UK’s premier puppet coach, Nigel Plaskitt, who last visited the Capital with Dr Doolittle in 2000.

“This is quite a different piece” he cautions. “It’s certainly for adults and not children and it’s different in performance as well. The puppeteers have the puppets in or on their hands and are visible throughout, so it’s quite a different style.”

There are also three actors, who interact with the puppets to tell the story of Princeton, a college graduate anxious to discover his purpose in life.

Set on Avenue Q, a fictional street in one of the poorer districts of New York City, the musical charts Princeton’s search for a job, but first there’s an apartment to find... and so he ends up living on Avenue Q, where his neighbours include Kate Monster, Rod the Republican banker and Nicky his room mate, aspiring comedian Brian and his Asian fiancee, Trekkie Monster, and Gary Coleman, the building superintendent.

Promised by their parents that they were ‘special’ and ‘could do anything,’ the characters realise that in the adult world options are limited. And as they vie to discover ‘whose life sucks the most,’ audiences are further introduced to The Bad Idea Bears (pictured) and geriatric kindergarten teacher, Mrs Thistletwat.

Three distinct types of puppets are used in Avenue Q - single-rod, double-rod and live-hand puppets. Handmade, many of these cost £6000 and take up to 120 hours to make - it’s Plaskitt’s job to train the performers to manipulate them properly.

“It’s difficult to define my job,” he confesses, “I’m called the puppet coach, which means, in its basic form I teach the actors how to use the puppets. Since day one we have trained new puppeteers from scratch. Although many puppeteers did audition for the show, none of them, sadly, could sing the roles.”

The irony of puppetry, of course, is that the better the puppeteer the more likely the spectator is to forget they are watching a puppet.

“It’s quite tough for the actors sometimes and they all have to deal with that,” agrees Plaskitt, “They have to understand that operating a puppet is a skill in itself and if they are doing it right, that will happen.

“What we’ve found with this show is that the audience tend to watch the puppets but flick back and forth between the faces, almost subliminally.”

While shows like Thunderbirds, Spitting Image and The Muppets, all of which Plaskitt has worked on, have long since have disappeared from our TV screens, Plaskitt insists that far from being a dying art, puppetry is currently burgeoning.

“Television-wise puppetry may have become a little more sparse but there is still a representation of puppet characters on the screen.

“In theatre on the other hand, puppetry is becoming more and more popular. You have War Horse in London’s West End at the moment - the horses in that are basically big puppets. There’s Avenue Q, I also have a touring production of Peppa Pig for a younger audience and I’m performing myself just now for PG Tips - the PG Monkey is proving very popular.”

Johnny Vegas’ little sidekick may well be popular, but so too was the character that started it all for Plaskitt back in the 70s.

“I set out to be an actor and pretty early on was asked if I’d like to voice and operate Hartley Hare in the ITV children’s series The Pipkins, I thought, Why not?

“For ten years I did both, then around the time of Spitting Image, puppetry took over. There was so much work, I had started working for the Jim Henson Company at the same time, and now, here we are... 30 years later.

“But I’m not a puppet freak,” he laughs, “I don’t have them around the house. It is just a job, but one I enjoy.”

Avenue Q, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, various times, £12.50-£30.50, 0844-871 3014