How did a shy girl from Preston end up simulating sex with her hand up a puppet’s bum in front of hundreds of people on a West End stage? That’s what Caroline Bishop wanted to know when she went for a chat with Julie Atherton, currently playing Kate Monster and Lucy The Slut in the hit Broadway import Avenue Q at the Noël Coward theatre…
Julie Atherton’s petite frame is emphasised by the spacious dressing room in the basement of the Noël Coward theatre, and the big sofa upon which she sits. With her long, wavy brown hair and big eyes she looks like the girl next door rather than a vampish leading lady, yet every night she’s on stage at the Noël Coward providing the When Harry Met Sally-style vocal bravura for a fairly rude – yet very funny – sex scene between two cute puppets by the names of Kate Monster and Princeton.
Such is the humour of the Tony Award-winning puppet-musical Avenue Q, billed as ‘Sesame Street meets South Park’, a rude, silly, clever and touching musical where the human inhabitants of the eponymous New York street share the stage with their puppet neighbours, manipulated and voiced by a talented quartet of puppeteers who are as much a part of the show as their vertically-challenged charges.
As one of those puppeteers, Atherton has to employ the split personality that encompasses both girl-next-door cuteness and sexual swagger, as she inhabits not one, but two puppets – on the one hand, she plays the cute and girlish Kate Monster, the heroine of the story who falls for hero Princeton and dreams of bigger things for her life; on the other hand (sometimes literally), she’s Lucy The Slut, a sort of rude Miss Piggy who displays ample puppet cleavage to get her wicked way.
"I thought ‘oh no, I can’t do this, they’re going to finally discover I’m a fraud’"
Atherton makes switching between the two characters, whose body language and voices are very different, seem easy – indeed it’s the talent of the puppeteers that makes Avenue Q as impressive a show as it is – yet before this she’d never manipulated a puppet before. “It’s fine now, everything’s pretty much muscle memory now,” says Atherton, “but at first I would say a line and then go ‘oh, it’s me… oh it’s still me…oh it’s all me!’ because there are three scenes where I talk to myself.”
When creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx devised the original show in New York, the idea was to show off the skills of the actors, who were trained puppeteers – indeed, the cuddly characters are designed by Rick Lyon, who played Trekkie Monster and Nicky in the New York production. As a result, the two substantial parts of Lucy and Kate were given to one person rather than split between two. “They tried it but it just wasn’t as impressive, because part of it is that it’s impressive and you go, ‘wow, I can’t believe somebody’s doing all that.’ It shows a bit more of an edge,” says Atherton. All very well for trained puppeteers, but a baptism of fire for Atherton and co., who were recruited for the British production without quite realising what they were getting into. “I went for the audition and didn’t have a clue. I didn’t actually realise that I would have to be a puppeteer,” she says. “I really didn’t know what to expect and then when I started rehearsals I thought ‘oh no, I can’t do this, they’re going to finally discover I’m a fraud.’”
Rehearsals involved just one week of puppeteering training and then five weeks to stage the show, which meant “a lot of pressure in the first few weeks” while they were all still puppet-novices. “I would put a brave face on for rehearsals and then go home and cry and think I’m never going to get this, I don’t know why I’m doing this. I was phoning my friends going ‘I don’t want to do Avenue Q, I hate it! I’m never going to be a puppeteer!’”
Now, however, things couldn’t be more different and Atherton loves the job, with all its quirks. “It was a relief when the show started, because normally when you’re on stage you know whether it’s going well, you can sort of look outside yourself, but in this, well yes, you can look outside yourself, but not the puppets. The very first previews I was like, I haven’t got a clue how that went. Now it’s easier to look outside of the puppet.” Manipulating her charges has become easier, too. “It’s weird, when you first start it’s like being in a world where you’ve no coordination, and after a while it’s second nature and I don’t know how I never did it,” she says – though with two puppets, the potential for confusion is high: “Very early on, while I was saying Lucy’s line I moved Kate’s mouth. One of my friends was in and went ‘yeah, I noticed that.’” Apart from this one-off transgression, Atherton now knows the job and the puppets so well that she can even tell the difference between the ‘real’ Kate Monster and the duplicate used for press events. “I just know!” she laughs.
The only down-side to the job is the muscle pain that comes with holding a puppet for two hours a night, and twice on Fridays and Saturdays. The solution is a massage once a week and a well-earned drink post-show on Saturday night. “The funny thing is though that on a Saturday, people come to get autographs at the end, and with my right hand it’s a really shaky signature!”
"You could feel it from the beginning – it was a hit in America so they don’t want to enjoy it"
She’s pleased though, to sign her name against a show she is so proud to be a part of. Which is why, when the critics’ comments were published, she felt so upset – bar a couple of reviews, most were less than enthusiastic about the production, though complimentary about the cast. “If anything, I was expecting maybe personally I’d get slated or whatever, but not the writing because I thought it was great. Some of the choices of phrases…I just don’t think they got it.”
“We felt it on press night,” she adds. “It was like [mimics tumbleweed sound effect] and all the support was from everywhere else but the first five rows, where the press were all sitting. You could feel it from the beginning, they didn’t want to enjoy it – it was a hit in America so they don’t want to enjoy it. Some of them were great and that was nice, but I feel a bit embarrassed.” Nevertheless, Atherton says she doesn’t listen to reviews and hopes that word-of-mouth will continue to fill the theatre – so far she’s right.
Word-of-mouth has certainly spread details of some of Avenue Q’s ruder moments – such as when Kate and Princeton finally get it on. It’s surprising how rude puppet-sex can look, but Atherton isn’t embarrassed, as long as her mum isn’t in the audience. But Atherton’s mother is well used to being shocked by her daughter, ever since the once painfully shy girl decided she wanted to go to drama school. “It was a bit of a shock actually for my mum, because I was so quiet,” says Atherton. “I secretly wanted to do it but I never said I did because I never thought I’d have the confidence to actually do it. And then I did drama at 6th form college and my teacher was brilliant, he dragged it out of me; I owe it all to him really. Then all of a sudden one day I was like, ‘I want to go to drama school.’ I think [my mum] thought it was another of my phases.”
She ended up at London’s Mountview Theatre School, where, during the four years, she learned to come out of herself. “It took all of drama school, even through drama school, even now, if there’s something that I’m uncomfortable with I’ll clam up. But I just think ‘get over it’; you have to,” she says.
Following Mountview and the compulsory brief stint working as a waitress (“I remember writing on a pad ‘this is where I’m going to be working for the rest of my life’”), she auditioned for, and was given, the lead role of Sophie in Mamma Mia! in the West End. Since then her career has gone swimmingly – she’s starred in Fame in London and on tour, and the musical theatre platform Notes From New York at the Donmar, and has an album of Charles Miller songs in production. Though Avenue Q is her favourite job so far, she says: “I love the way my career’s gone because every single job I’ve really enjoyed for different reasons.”
It’s a pretty successful, and very public, career for a girl who once thought she didn’t have the confidence to get up on stage. Maybe that’s why, when asked which of the two puppets is her favourite, Atherton decisively says the quiet, cute, innocent Kate rather than the bold, brash Lucy. In her split personality, as in the show, the shy girl wins the day.