Rob Atkinson: Avenue Q treat at Leeds Carriageworks

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You live and you learn, and I’ve learned plenty in my 35 years involvement with local theatre across much of Yorkshire.

The culmination of that process was probably the spectacular show I was lucky enough to see at the Leeds Carriageworks Theatre last weekend, when Diva Productions staged a memorable offering in the shape of Avenue Q, which is aptly described as an “autobiographical and biographical” coming-of-age parable, satirising the issues and anxieties associated with entering adulthood. That somewhat academic summary risks obscuring the other salient fact about this show: that it’s a colourful and ribald bundle of action and fun, combining puppetry and profanity to leave its audience crying with laughter and standing to applaud a thoroughly entertaining spectacle. The thing is, for the second time in a few months, I was seeing a show I wouldn’t necessarily have taken in for its own sake. My musical theatre inclinations have always tended towards the traditional; I’m a Gilbert & Sullivan fan with a taste also for long-established Broadway and West End offerings. Lately though, I’ve yielded twice to the more contemporary theatrical palate of my daughter Kate, accompanying her to see first Mamma Mia at Leeds Grand, and then this revelatory Avenue Q production. And, although I still love my comfy old Rodgers & Hammerstein stuff, venturing into relative modernity has been great fun, as well as – particularly in the case of last weekend - a real eye-opener. It’s worth emphasising that Diva Productions’ Avenue Q was an amateur offering in name only; the performers weren’t paid but, to this thoroughly entertained watcher, they managed finally to bridge what has for some time been a narrowing gap between the professional stage and those who tread the boards for the love of it. These were actors who have had to apply all of their considerable talent and stagecraft to a challenging production - as well as learning from scratch the new skill of puppetry. Their success in mastering this craft underpinned the impact of Avenue Q, creating a situation where the audience was able to accept the puppets as characters in their own right. So there was empathy with the angst of a sexually-confused blue chap one moment and then laughter the next, at the comedy malice of a yellow Schadenfreude Bad Idea Bear, who wished only to lead others into misfortune for her own perverse satisfaction. Those puppets were the stars of the show, and yet all human life was there in diverse and frequently bizarre characters that engaged and entertained. The challenge of carrying this off with conviction was risen to effortlessly by a cast and production team who could be distinguished from Mamma Mia’s professionals only by the fact that they were not paid a penny. For talent, commitment and the quality of the production values, the two offerings stood side by side; Avenue Q was the ultimate vindication of amateur theatre at the top of its game.

Leeds and Wakefield are well-served by quality theatrical groups offering the public a terrific standard of entertainment at a reasonable price, their nominal amateur status belied by highly professional values. Diva Productions did the local musical theatre scene proud with Avenue Q, but straight drama group Bite My Thumb, who will be presenting Frankenstein at the Carriageworks this month, have shown similar ability and professionalism in productions such as Brassed Off over the past couple of years.

The standards now are a world away from those I recall when I first started in 1982 - and it can finally be said that amateur performers really are giving the pros a run for their money. Happily, it’s the theatre-loving public who ultimately benefit. Long may that continue!