Is there anything potentially more daunting for a lover of plays who can’t abide chart music than to see a musical featuring songs by a punk rock band (albeit a highly successful one) and featuring not even a winner, but a third place finalist, of the television series The X-Factor? The great advantage of not being a natural follower of the sort of music for which Green Day is renowned is that I went in to American Idiot with almost a completely open mind. I say ‘almost’ – I thought of the show’s title, and I thought of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013 quip: “In America, you have the right to be stupid, if you want to be.”
More than a few of us non-celebrities were not wholly comfortable walking down the red carpet with television cameras and boom microphones staring down at you. Not that the tabloids would have their fashion editors point out that I turned up in a turquoise shirt and black trousers, both from Marks & Spencer, but there are usually ways for ticket holders to skirt around the flashing cameras and gawping crowds. Sometimes we reviewers are even encouraged to go a different way, so the press photographers can concentrate on taking pictures of the great and the good, or at least the photogenic. Not here. They had even applied successfully to Westminster City Council to have the road closed off for this press night – if you were to get in at all, it was through the red carpet. Of note on the red carpet, for those who hold a particular interest in this sort of thing, were Diana Vickers (The Duck House, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice) and Richard Fleeshman (Ghost: The Musical, Legally Blonde).
Mercifully (or unsurprisingly, to those familiar with Green Day), Billie Joe Armstrong’s song lyrics tend to have a narrative to them, such that they are able to drive the story along. However, the songs are relied on a little too much. Firstly, the flawless band, led by musical director Mark Crossland, sometimes drowned out the lyrics. Such is the nature, I suppose, of this sort of rock music. Secondly, partly because I wasn’t able to take in everything being sung, it was a little difficult to follow the sequence of events. There are soliloquies from Johnny (a very talented and likeable Aaron Sidwell, who held the audience throughout: I could have listened to him all night!), giving dates and events, but they largely relate to his own situation. The stories of the other two protagonists, Tunny (Alexis Gerred) and Will (Steve Rushton) must therefore be figured out through the songs.
This is, for Green Day fans, heavenly – the show lets the music and the lyrics do the work, so sometimes there’s tune after tune after tune, and boy, how the fans loved it. There’s some good use of a television screen, particularly at the very start of the show, where the audience is treated to some post-9/11 ‘Bushisms’ (“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”) and other media quotes, including a member of the public who thought Italy should be invaded by the United States. This sets the scene for the opening title number, which speaks of a new generation coming through that is fed up with the status quo: “Don’t want to be an American idiot / One nation controlled by the media / Information age of hysteria / Calling out to idiot America.”
And what of Amelia Lily? In the role of ‘Whatsername’ (if that’s lazy, Raquel Jones gets to play ‘Extraordinary Girl’ – I do hope these names aren’t putting anyone off) her vocals are strong and her acting is sufficient for the relatively minor role in question. The part does not allow her – or the audience – to fully explore what she is really capable of, but she is well cast as Johnny’s on/off girlfriend.
So, there are three ways to grow up (there are more, of course, but three are presented here). Johnny finds Whatsername, does drugs and subscribes to a hedonistic view of life. Tunny goes into the US Army, gets injured, and has psychological injuries too. Will appears to go down the route of holding down a job and starting a family. But things are not tied up perfectly by the end of the show. There’s no ‘…and they lived happily ever after’. What we do get is something – dare I say it – almost Shakespearean. The cast all sing their hearts out, strumming guitars at the same time (genuinely playing, as far as I could see), in a sense apologising for any possible errors or contradictions in the show just seen, but trusting the audience enjoyed the performance: “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right / I hope you had the time of your life.”
I must admit I found the music a bit too loud for my liking to begin with. A lady in my row didn’t help by saying beforehand that she tried to listen to the original cast recording, but found that after the first three tracks she stopped, because she found the songs too similar to one another. She should have persevered (I note she joined in the standing ovation at curtain call). There is variation in the style of music over the course of the show. ‘When It’s Time’, for instance, is practically a ballad, and certainly not every tune is full-blast hair-dryer rock and roll.
I like it. It’s a challenging and bold musical. If you really aren’t quite sure if you’ll enjoy American Idiot, suspend your disbelief, give it a shot, and you may very well be pleasantly surprised. And if you’re a Green Day fan, please don’t go in expecting the Green Day equivalent of ‘Thriller Live’ – there’s a proper story to be told here. This show is not comparable to Rent and Hair: it stands on its own merits, and captures the true feelings of young adults in post-9/11 America perfectly. I still have ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ in my head…
Review by Chris Omaweng
The story of three boyhood friends, each searching for meaning in a post 9-11 world, AMERICAN IDIOT features the music of Green Day with the lyrics of its lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong. The book is by Armstrong and Michael Mayer and direction is by Tony Award®-winner Mayer (“Spring Awakening”). Its hit songs include “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “21 Guns,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “Holiday” and the blockbuster title track “American Idiot” from Green Day’s 2004 Grammy Award-winning, multi-platinum album. Also included are several songs from Green Day’s 2009 release “21st Century Breakdown,” and an unreleased love song, “When It’s Time.”
AMERICAN IDIOT – THE MUSICAL
Performances: Tuesday – Friday at 8.00pm
Saturday – 2.30pm & 8.00pm
Sunday – 3.00pm & 6.00pm
Running time: 90 minutes (no interval)
Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7JB
Thursday 23rd July 2015