American Idiot continues at the Arts Theatre, London until 27 September.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
As a fan of neither Green Day nor most rock/pop musicals, I’m maybe not the best person to review this 90-minute sung-through show, which is based on the US band’s 2004 concept album of the same name. Throw in an X Factor runner-up and a former Beale child from EastEnders and the chances of me enjoying the show are slim. Yet American Idiot has an undeniable energy, top-notch performances and the punkest band in the West End… all qualities that compelled me to enjoy this acid trip of a show.
Before the action kicks off, the period and mood is set by video clips of idiotic Americans, including the original King Idiot, George W Bush, proselytising on a snowy TV screen about the state of the union post 9-11 and who should be invaded next (“Italy”, says one half-wit). Tim Dieling’s lighting provides a foreboding, dystopian atmosphere, and is particularly effective when streaming through the bullet-riddled walls of Sara Perk’s graffitied set.
The scantest of books – written by Green Day co-founder Billie Joe Armstrong and theatre director Michael Mayer – then introduces us to three disaffected lower-middle-class suburban friends from “Jingletown, USA”, all struggling to adapt to a post 9-11 world. Will (Steve Rushton) faces the daunting prospect of becoming a first-time father; Tunny (Alexis Gerred) enlists after falling for a mesmeric Army recruitment commercial (starring the very effective Ross William Wild); and Johnny (Aaron Sidwell), aka “Jesus of Suburbia” and the star of the show, heads to the big city and spirals out of control, driven to a life of grime and heroin while attempting to hold on to a relationship with Whatsername (Amelia Lily).
Sidwell – the said EastEnders alumnus [and recently seen in the concert production of Cool Rider] – turns in a powerful performance as the moody, malcontent Johnny. Rarely off stage, he injects life (and heroin) into a character that could otherwise be vapid and difficult to relate to. Indeed, it’s very hard to care about any of them, as they’re all thinly drawn and there’s very little in the way of character development. Sidwell has a voice that suits the material, and he has that perfect punky, junky look. I quickly got over my snobbishness about his soap past thanks to his credible – and show-carrying – execution. He’s one to watch.
I also got over myself with regard to X Factor’s Amelia Lily, who delivers a strong performance as Whatsername, and who again fleshes out the bare bones of a rather unwrought character. Aptly named, she and rest of the female cast get short shrift compared with the boys, but she certainly has a star quality. Also worthy of note is Lucas Rush as St Jimmy – Johnny’s heroin-injecting, gun-toting alter ego.
If you’re a fan of Green Day’s songs – as many of the audience around me clearly were – you’ll likely get a buzz from seeing them staged as well as they are here. Even if you’re not a fan, like me, you’ll appreciate MD Mark Crossland’s phenomenally good four-part band, and particularly drummer Alex Marchisone.
On the downside, the numbers lack variety. There are a couple of more tender moments when the lights and the amps are turned down low and Sidwell self-accompanies on a guitar – blessed relief – but director and choreographer Racky Plews errs on the side of a high-octane gig (albeit experienced sitting down stiffly in serried rows). The Arts’ stage pulsates with an almost relentless, tiring intensity, like a musical version of Fight Club or Trainspotting. And it’s loud, although the sound team deserve a mention for the clarity and quality of the production. That said, I often found it difficult to discern the words.
American Idiot resonates with other rock-pop musicals – Rocky Horror, Rent, Tommy, Spring Awakening, Hair – but punks out that bit harder, with more grit and grime than its influences, if you can call them that. Like the punk movement, it’s also fairly humourless and takes itself a wee bit too seriously; it was at times so teen-angsty that I wanted to get up there and give them all a clip around the ear for their whinging. But now I’m just showing my age.
Net net, it is a compelling, enjoyable show (despite the hot, airless Arts), and one that I’d suggest you see if you’re excited by new ways to extend the reach and remit of musical theatre. Just be warned: this is no enchanted evening, so leave Grandma at home.