Music by Green Day, lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong, book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Work Light Productions
Palace Theatre, Manchester
In 2009, the American punk band Green Day got together with the director (Michael Meyer) and many of the cast and crew of Spring Awakening to work on a stage version of its most famous album, supplemented with songs from other albums and a few b-sides.
The result was American Idiot, which ran for a year on Broadway to mixed reviews but won a couple of Tonys plus a Grammy for the show album. While the label "punk" is oftened attached to this band, the music in this show is standard American rock that bears little relation to the British punk of the 70s in sound or attitude—more slacker than anarchy.
The show centres on three male friends who drink and smoke pot together and complain about being stifled by their parents and the town where they live, Jingletown USA. Yes, it's a typical tale of teenage coming of age and rebellion with rock music. Central to this tale is Johnny, who buys bus tickets for them all to escape to the city, but Will's girlfriend Heather reveals she is pregnant so Will stays with her.
Johnny and Tunny set off, but Tunny is seduced into the army so Johnny is left alone; he starts to inject heroin, watched over by the figure of "St Jimmy", but then meets the girl of his dreams, only referred to as "Whatsername". Despite his growing feelings for her, the pull of the drugs is stronger.
The remainder of the show plays out the three stories as Will tries to continue his slacker lifestyle as Heather grows increasingly apart from him, Johnny's behaviour becomes more erratic due to his drug taking and Tunny becomes seriously injured fighting in an unspecified war.
The whole show is through-sung, and is more of a song cycle than a musical as the songs are more important than the plot, which just about hangs on by a thread at times. There are obvious echoes of The Who's concept album stories that have seen stage and screen adaptations such as Tommy and Quadrophenia and perhaps even of Pink Floyd's The Wall, and modern rock musicals such as Rent and Spring Awakening are clearly influences.
Christine Jones's scenic design sets the whole thing in what looks like the interior of an abandoned warehouse with walls full of TV screens, which is already a bit of a cliché for a rock musical where the band is onstage. There are some very nice moments of staging, such as the use of a scaffolding tower as the bus and a lovely aerial ballet between Tunny and "The Extraordinary Girl" when he is high on painkillers.
There is a good selection of fast and furious numbers and of slow ballads—although the words were largely lost in most of the former as the mic sound was going for volume rather than clarity and was quite distorted and painful at times. Stephen Hoggett's choreography brings us the moves of the mosh pit but in a more coordinated form, which is repetitive and monotonous but deliberately so.
There is great energy from a committed cast including the very talented Alex Nee as Johnny with great support from Casey O'Farrell as Will, Thomas Hettrick as Tunny, Kennedy Caughell as Heather, Alyssa DiPalma as Whatsername and Trent Saunders as St Jimmy, plus a great ensemble.
But can it justify its billing as "groundbreaking"? Well, it is energetic and loud, dripping with teenage angst with which the youngsters can empathise, feels like genuine rock rather than rock songs sung by musical theatre singers and is very well performed. On the other hand, the plot is tenuous with no chance to get to know the characters as anything other than representatives of a certain teenage attitude. Both good and bad elements have been seen many times before, so no ground broken here.
But that doesn't mean it isn't worth seeing by any means. While it may not rate up there with the best productions of its main influences, it's a decent night out at the theatre with obvious appeal to fans of the band and others who like loud rock music and teenage angst.
But an audience clapping along to the finale number seems a bit more panto than punk to me...
Reviewer: David Chadderton