Green Day’s 2004 release, American Idiot, was a modern punk concept album on the subject of youth disenfranchisement in the post-9/11 world. In the same way that Pete Townshend oversaw the creation of The Who’s rock operas Quadrophenia and Tommy, Billie Joe Armstrong devised American Idiot as a punk opera.
At the centre of the story are three friends, Johnny, Will & Tunny – they’re bored of their repetitive lives in Jingletown, so they plan to move to the city. But the big idea falls apart pretty quickly: Will stays at home when he discovers his girlfriend is pregnant, Tunny joins the army and Johnny turns to drugs, developing an alter ego called ‘St Jimmy’.
The production is 90 minutes (without an interval), and is almost entirely sung-through; the main bits of dialogue are Johnny writing home or briefly describing his day. This adds nothing to the story, and seems to be designed to get cheap & childish laughs (“Forgot to shower. Again.”) – the characters don’t really speak to each other, and there isn’t enough within the songs alone to make sure the story is explained sufficiently. The whole concept of Johnny & St Jimmy is not at all clear (it might be helped if they wore the same, or similar, costumes), and the ‘reveal’ at the end is poorly thought through, coming in the middle of Whatsername with no signposting.
There are real issues with the sound design. It’s not loud enough for a rock musical – I expect to feel it – but at the same time, it’s too loud to hear a lot of what is sung or said over the top of it. Turn the microphone levels up, and then turn everything up a bit. An attempt at contrasting the noise with silence also falls flat; Johnny shoots up in his bedroom, and it takes an absolute age. It’s not actually silent, either, as there is a constant low-level hum that sounds like fans, and the occasional noise from backstage.
I have mixed feelings about the show’s visual design. The set is very grey & dreary, so it’s not exciting to look at, but it does fit with the mood of the piece – and you do understand why the boys are disillusioned with life. In terms of costume, however, it is so mid-noughties that it really does feel dated. Too recent to be considered retro or vintage, the style just feels oddly old seeing it in the mid-2010s; the themes of the show should feel as relevant as ever, but there is a visual barrier that doesn’t make it as accessible as it could be.
Similarly, the lighting design is all over the place. It’s chaotic, at best. No audience member appreciates being blinded by lights from the stage, especially as frequently as this. Even the use of different colour lighting seems confused & lacking coherence. It’s pop-punk music, so I understand the wish to be bright & brash, but not at the expense of patrons’ retinas!
There is a lot going on onstage, and everything seems to be vying for your attention rather than working together to complement a particular focal point. And the band upstairs look like they’re having so much fun (especially when ‘Will’ joins in) that it’s hard not to sit & watch them the whole time! To counter this, it may be more beneficial to have actor-musicians & do away with the band entirely, or hide them away, so there are fewer competing visuals.
It does feel a bit uncomfortable making something punk into a musical – with all the harmonies, ‘musical theatre pronunciation’ & choreography. It has lost its raw energy and, with that, its meaning. I still feel something when I listen to Green Day’s recording, but this live representation just doesn’t do it justice.
I also feel for unsuspecting audience members who find themselves down at the front, as they are at risk of having popcorn thrown on them & being covered in stage blood. Granted, most down the front will be the superfans, who know it’s coming (& probably delight in it), but the fake blood in particular is not a nice thing to have to travel home covered in.
An undeniable highlight of the show is the irrepressible Lucas Rush’s turn as St Jimmy. He is bursting with energy and really sells the character – his voice, too, is strong, and perfect for the part, with a real rock edge. Rush looks like he is having the time of his life out there.
Steve Rushton & Emma Housley provide real emotional integrity as Will & Heather. Their storyline is by far the most sympathetic, and they really commit to this. Housley’s voice is beautiful and of leading lady quality.
A quirky thing about American Idiot is the interjection of a couple of songs on a small television screen that descends from the roof. George Maguire’s brief appearance for Rock And Roll Girlfriend towards the end is a welcome injection of true rock star energy – even if it is just played on a screen rather than live.
Leading the company as Johnny & Whatsername are singers Newton Faulkner & Amelia Lily. Of all the faults in this production, their casting has to be the biggest. Somewhat surprisingly, given that his day job is pop-folk singing, Faulkner’s voice just about stands up to the demands of the punk-rock style; Lily can belt out the tunes, though she doesn’t quite have the range to make the high notes & thus her voice peters out. There is no discernible emotion in their singing – it’s all on one level, and they have no chemistry as a couple. Faulkner gives the acting side a good go, getting a few chuckles here & there, but it just falls flat. He is only 31, but looks a lot older than the pair playing his childhood friends, so it’s not believable from the start. Amelia Lily has been with the show since it opened last summer, so it is utterly perplexing that she, too, struggles to act the part. She is leaden & lethargic – and when her character does get a moment in the spotlight, she wastes it by posing & posturing.
For me, there are fundamental flaws in this production & the show in itself. I’m always wary when I look at the cast list and see character names like ‘Extraordinary Girl’ and ‘Whatsername’; it smacks of trying to fit a story around insufficient material, and is rarely a success.
My verdict? A wasted opportunity to provide a voice for the youth of today – it threatens rebellion, but is a mere poke in the eye rather than a punch in the face.
American Idiot runs at the Arts Theatre (West End) until 25 September 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office.