01/08/15 - American Idiot at the Arts Theatre, London

For the Millennial Generation, at least, you may struggle to find an album that means as much as Green Day's American Idiot.  Even in the UK (where we didn't feel George Bush's reign so acutely), it was the soundtrack to many people's adolescence and the first form of media to truly pinpoint our feelings of nonconformity and struggles with identity.  It is also arguably the most prominent work of art to openly express opposition to the Bush administration, so much so that even ten years later the themes and ideas that the album addresses are still as relevant as they were at the time.  And now, at London's Arts Theatre, these songs are being given a new life in the form of a jukebox musical which expands on Green Day's concept album.  Although it may not seem as though a punk rock musical would appeal to either to fans of punk rock or of musical theatre, American Idiot the Musical is a force of nature that somehow just works.

American Idiot the Musical is the story of three adolescent friends struggling to find their way in post-9/11 American suburbia.  They are full of the fire of frustrated youth and ultimately all three take very different paths; Will (Steve Rushton) is left behind in Jingletown to deal with his impending fatherhood, while Johnny (Aaron Sidwell) and Tunny (Alexis Gerred) make for the bright lights of the big city.  Tunny enlists in the army, and Johnny begins a relationship with Whatshername (Amelia Lily) which he struggles to maintain as he drifts into a downward spiral of drug abuse and self-destruction encouraged by his malevolent alter-ego, St Jimmy (Lucas Rush).  

I attended the first preview of the new production and found that the Arts Theatre felt like the perfect place for this kind of show.  The intimate space increases the impact of the loud music and the flashing lights, and the rock gig vibe was increased by the sweaty, excited atmosphere of the audience.  Before the performance bursts to life, a screen shows clips of American news footage covering the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers and Bush's infamous soundbite - "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists".  This sets the mood perfectly, especially when combined with atmospheric foreboding lighting and Sara Perks' industrial wasteland of a set.  Having seen a touring production of this show in 2012, it is noticeable that a few tweaks have been made to the staging in order to fit the show into a relatively small theatre (the Arts Theatre has a capacity of 350 compared to the 2,600 of Manchester's Palace Theatre where I first it) - for example, the wall of television screens has been reduced to one which is flown in for certain numbers. 

© Darren Bell

The action is staged over two levels, and watching the cast shin up and down metal ladders certainly adds to the impact of Racky Plews' aggressive choreography.  There are some clever little touches to the set, such as rolling metal shelves which perform the role of 7-Eleven aisles which are trashed by the energetic chorus and then transform seamlessly into a bus to transport Johnny and Tunny out of suburbia.  Scene transitions are executed flawlessly by the cast who act as stage crew in order to move pieces of set around and create the next scene.  The four-piece band are located on the upper level, partially hidden by a sliding metal grate. For me at least, featuring them more visibly might have been ideal considering that the show is so heavily carried by the songs.

The whole ensemble perform excellently, rampaging around the small stage with unwavering energy.  From the off, every number is complimented by the small (but more than sufficient) chorus' vigorous dancing and rousing harmonies.  Aaron Sidwell's Johnny is hardly offstage and maintains the audience's interest in his journey of self-discovery throughout. His vocals are fantastically versatile to suit both the softer acoustic songs and the loud rocky ones.  Amelia Lily certainly has the pipes to carry the role of Johnny's romantic interest, Whatshername, and while her acting may not have matched up to her vocal talent, she does enough with the small role she is given to justify her casting.  I found that Lucas Rush, despite having a strong voice and the a solid amount of West End experience, wasn't entirely convincing as the character of St Jimmy - you could argue this was through no fault of his own, giving a polished and technically good vocal performance. However, I felt his style jarred with some of the rawer and more grounded performances of the other actors.  Steve Rushton, despite having arguably less to do than some of the other characters and certainly less acting experience than most of the cast, was fantastic as father-to-be Will. I'd hazard a guess that, given his musical background, this was down to an existing familiarity with and passion for the material.

© Darren Bell

Fans of Green Day will be more than satisfied with the portrayal of the band's most popular album under Mark Crossland's musical direction, and it has to be said that the songs really carry the plot. This comes as no surprise; American Idiot was written as a concept album.  For this reason, the dialogue between the songs is minimal and although some may say that the book suffers, ultimately the music and lyrics are the driving force of this production.  The score features not only the American Idiot album in full, but also tracks from the band's follow-up 21st Century Breakdown and a handful of American Idiot B-sides.  The additional songs have mixed results; some feeling a little shoehorned in (Last of the American Girls mixed with She's A Rebel), others are worthy additions to the story (Favorite Son, 21 Guns).  Seeing familiar songs arranged and performed differently, with added harmonies and instrumentation, was one of my favourite elements of the production.  New life and meaning are breathed into well-known songs such Give Me Novocaine, which was a highlight of the production if not of the album.  Onstage, it was excellently executed and choreographed to bring together the three interweaving storylines.  The first three numbers (the eponymous American Idiot, followed by Jesus of Suburbia and Holiday) an another example of this, bringing together all the disciplines of musical theatre to brilliant effect.  Full of the spirit of rebellion, it makes for an excellent opening to the dynamic performance.  On the other hand, some of the slower, more reflective songs were a little disappointing.  Wake Me Up When September Ends could have been an incredibly emotional point of the show, but I found that the staging and arrangement felt a little flat and lack-lustre in comparison with the bigger and more impressive numbers.

American Idiot the Musical is bold and challenging with some really stellar moments and solid performances all round.  Compared with previous productions, this takes the show back to its musical roots in a way which is perfect for such an intimate venue.  The American Idiot album appears to be standing the test of time and this production only furthers its legacy for audiences new and old.  

American Idiot the Musical is running at the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square until 27th September 2015 - booking details and more information can be found here.

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