IF puppets are involved in a piece of entertainment, the chances are that the services of Nigel Plaskitt will be called upon.
Betty Blue Eyes, the new West End musical based on the Alan Bennett movie, A Private Function, being the latest example.
“Betty is a pig and it’s mostly an animatronic creature but at certain points they use a hand-puppet pig and that’s where I came in,” he says. “My job was to help and advise and sort things out, though slightly less of a role than usual.”
Being puppet adviser on Avenue Q, the Tony Award-winning show touring to the Lyceum next week, inevitably involved a lot more since the puppets are the main attraction and Plaskitt recruited and trained the people to work them for both the West End production and now the UK tour.
Billed as adult version of Seasame Street, it follows a similar format to the much loved American kids TV show with three human characters interacting with puppets manipulated on stage by puppeteers whom the audience soon forget are there even though they are providing the voice as well. “I can think of no one who doesn’t quickly start watching the puppets as characters,” says Plaskitt.
“I had been working on the international tour of Sesame Street, at various internvals going round the country auditioning people and then training them in how to use the puppets. When Avenue Q was coming to the UK I was asked to do the same. It’s a very nice job to do.”
The puppeteers are actors first and foremost. “We cast the net wide but the pre-requisite is that they can sing and have the ability to do the role and look similar to the character. We did see puppeteers in the early days but none of them fitted the bill. I prefer to start with a blank sheet.”
It’s pretty much the route Plaskitt himself took as he started out as an actor “and got sidetracked 30 years ago”.
“In my early twenties I began working on a children’s TV programme called Pipkins and when I was cast to do more voices they asked if I could work the puppet as well and I said, yes, even though it wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do. But I began to appreciate what a great skill it was.
“The show ran for nine years and during that time Jim Henson moved in next door to do the Muppets and as a result of what they call networking today I became involved with that. It went on from there to 13 years on Spitting Image.”
This was an altogether different experience. “Impressionists did the voice and we were responsible for the visuals so it was a different technique. I prefer it when the voices are live but it was such an intense production the scripts were recorded, it was like working on a silent movie.” So which characters was Plaskitt responsible for? “Because of my size it tended to be the big ones, like Arnie Schwarzenneger, because you had to climb inside them. In later days I was playing John Major who was all grey which was pretty challenging to make it interesting.” People remember him eating peas and that was an even bigger challenge for the puppeteer.
“But the reward came when you heard people talking about it in the pub the next day.”
He continues to keep his hand in on TV with Monkey and Al - a series of award winning commercials for PG Tips.
But back to Avenue Q which revolves around a group of characters on a downtown New York street trying to make sense of life’s burning issues - love, work, relationships and, above all, just how are you supposed to pay the bills with a BA in English?
That’s reference to one of the songs, What Do You Do with a B.A. in English? Others are entitled Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, The Internet Is For Porn and I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today, suggesting it is hardly Sesame Street.
“It’s definitely not for children - or certainly the younger ones,” affirms Plaskitt.” I think the guidance is that it’s suitable for ages 12 plus. But it’s a great show and your readers will certainly laugh - or be outraged,” he chuckles.
Avenue Q is at the Lyceum from Monday to Saturday