The puppets doing their bit for Jewish Charity

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The puppets doing their bit for Jewish Charity

Impact's racy musical Avenue Q set to raise eyebrows and funds for Camp Simcha

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Finchley Bowling Club had never seen so much action. Past the green, in the darkness on a Wednesday night, music was heard from the clubhouse. A closer look through the window revealed a puppet unashamedly in flagrante with… another puppet.While others watched. It was enough to turn a bowler grey – or greyer, though fortunately none were present at Impact’s rehearsal for Avenue Q.

Back in 2004, Avenue Q, a musical featuring puppets and human actors, was the talk of New York, winning Best Musical, Book and Score for Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty at the 2004 Tony Awards. A parody of children’s favourite Sesame Street, its adult-oriented themes come with a parental advisory warning, although praise has been heaped on the way it handles racism, homosexuality and internet pornography in racy, upbeat songs.

Lucy the slut held by Katie
Adam Isaac is Princeton looking for a purpose

There wasn’t much singing as puppet protagonist Princeton (Adam Isaac) got down to business with love interest Kate Monster (Deborah Benjamin), but it’s unusual for a cast to be in stitches during a rehearsal. Renowned for her good nature and 20 years of exemplary productions, director Amanda Noar leads Impact with a firm hand. But even she is giggling when raunchy puppet Lucy the Slut, held by Katie Commissar Icklow (inset below) struts suggestively in front of her. “Learning to work with the puppets hasn’t been easy for them,” admits Amanda, who has been invited to take her previous hit – You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown – to Shanghai. “The difficulty is remembering that they are the puppets, so heads must move in unison, but…”

Impact’s inspiring director Amanda Noar

On cue, theatrical agent by day Neil Varu, who has otherwise mastered his felt alter ego, turns his head, but not Rod the gay puppet as they sashay stage left. “Any chance to camp it up where I can,” laughs Neil.

Neil Varu is Rod the Republican

“It has been such an enjoyable challenge working with the puppets and learning how to live and breathe through Princeton,” says Adam earnestly about the wide-eyed graduate seeking ‘A Purpose’ who sits on his arm (inset, below).

This is Adam’s fifth Impact show and all of the cast are repeat offenders, who love how Amanda put her own spin on Made in Dagenham, Working and A Slice of Saturday Night, but they also appreciate being part of the production she does once a year that is purely for charity.

“It’s our way of being able to bring a great show to the audience, doing something we love and at the same time helping charities,” says Katie.This year, the beneficiary of Avenue Q’s run is The Care Necessities ‘Hug from Home’ project, which was inspired by the experience of one of Camp Simcha’s families following their son’s leukaemia diagnosis.

Samuel Van Emden was only four when he complained of excruciating back pain while on holiday in Spain. Back at home, Samuel (inset, below) was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and hospitalised immediately.

“The world fell apart. We were devastated,” recalls his mother, Charlie, together with husband Oliver. “There was so much to take in and, at the hospital, all I had for Samuel was a Kindle and a couple of other bits. My mum, who was looking after our daughter Ella while we went for blood tests, was going through my cupboards trying to work out what we would all need to stay at hospital.”

The Van Emden family with Charlie now recovered

The Van Emdens were supported by Camp Simcha throughout Samuel’s illness, with a range of practical and emotional services, including a family liaison officer, therapeutic art sessions, outings and retreats. He finished treatment in early 2018.

“Samuel is doing brilliantly now and, as a family, we wanted to work with Camp Simcha to find a way to use our experience to help others,” adds Charlie. This resulted in The Care Necessities, which provides parents of all denominations with a case full of essentials and some bespoke home comforts at initial admission, to see them through the first few weeks in hospital, “in the hope of making a very difficult time slightly easier,” explains Charlie. “Nice cosy pyjamas and fluffy slippers – not disposable ones – toiletries that should last for a few weeks, healthy snacks and other provisions. I particularly wanted to include a fleece blanket – Samuel and I were both given them and they were so comforting. Every time he came out of an anaesthetic for a lumbar puncture, I would make sure it was there waiting for him.”

The initiative has been widely praised by paediatric oncology nurses, who see first-hand how The Care Necessities package is welcomed by parents struggling with a new reality. The absence of laughter for those families is not lost on the cast of Avenue Q, but they are glad their comedy will raise much-needed funds.

Avenue Q runs from 15 to 18 May at artsdepot, North Finchley.

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