REVIEW: American Idiot, Arts Theatre ✭✭✭

American Idiot at the Arts Theatre
The Cast Of American Idiot. Photo: Darren Bell

American Idiot
3 stars
Arts Theatre
22nd July 2015
Book Tickets

You don’t often hear Green Day mentioned in the same breath as Abba and the Four Seasons. And yet the pop-punks have joined these old favourites to add to the West End’s jukebox musical roll-call. The show opened on Broadway in 2010 and toured in the UK two years later – it’s now back and playing at the Arts Theatre by Leicester Square.

The plot is simple (so much so you’re often left waiting for a twist that never emerges) – disaffected teens Johnny, Will and Tunny all embark on different escape routes as they strive to get out of sleepy suburbia. Johnny pursues life in the big city, where he is distracted by drugs and pretty girls; Tunny joins the army and serves in Iraq, whilst Will seeks tries to be a stand-up dad for his new child, after getting his girlfriend pregnant.

The shadow of Bush-era conservatism and 9/11 looms large over this production, which as a whole perfectly captures the angsty political sound that Green Day was renowned for. Whilst this visceral rage makes for some brilliant tunes (you almost want to get up and mosh at times) it doesn’t lead to a lot of depth and subtlety. It faces the perennial jukebox musical challenge – trying to tell a story with no freedom over the lyrics. This is made even more pronounced by the fact that the musical is entirely sung through; without any establishing dialogue, it’s a real effort for the characters to venture beyond shouty caricatures.

Whilst some of the guitar-heavy ensemble numbers sometimes merge into one, Green Day’s softer hits were given much more creative treatment. Boulevard of Broken Dreams was perfectly staged and arranged, as was the classic Wake Me Up When September Ends. The show’s highlight was Extraordinary Girl, Tunny’s heart-breaking ballad from his hospital bed – wonderfully sung, with lighting and costumes that took the breath away.

It was left to these moments and the production’s relentless high energy to carry the show; apart from Johnny and Tunny there is precious little in the way of characterisation. The stay-at-home Dad Will isn’t developed very fully, whilst Jimmy’s love interest gets some great tunes but not much in the way of a personality (she’s even called Whatsername!).

The cast, a mixture of West End regulars and established rock singers, all do a sterling job, injecting the show with zest and vigour. Aaron Sidwell is spiky and troubled as leading man Johnny, getting the most out of both his rock numbers and his heartfelt solo efforts. Alexis Gerred poignantly captures the helpless heroism of Tunny whilst Steve Rushton also provides good support as Will. Former X factor finalist Amelia Lily doesn’t have a huge amount of West End experience, however she packs an incredible voice and more than holds her own in the acting stakes. There are no weak links in a high-power ensemble, with Racquel Jones and Natasha Karp putting in particularly noticeable performances.

The staging was exceptional; Sarah Perks’ set is grungy and gritty, with some clever touches – such as a ‘bus’ made mostly out of guitar cases. The TV on stage was used to good effect, although it’s a shame that the wall of TVs that worked so powerfully in the Broadway version could not be replicated on a smaller stage. The costumes are wonderfully punkish and dystopian; especially some wonderfully evil and demonic looking cheerleaders, who are either the stuff of dreams or nightmares (I haven’t decided which yet!).

Racky Plews’ choreography was highly sharp; angry and impassioned when it needed to be but also surprisingly moving during the slower numbers. Having said that, a fun drinking game for anyone attending, if you take a sip every time a character raises their middle finger or grabs their crotch, you’ll be half-cut in no time! The band is fantastic and even gets to engage in a bit of fourth wall breaking halfway through the show.

American Idiot is a bit of a frustrating production; whilst the music of Green Day has plenty to offer a musical, it doesn’t seem right for a sung-through stage adaption. However, whatever it lacks in plot and characterisation, it more than makes up for in energy, passion and pure good fun.

Book tickets at the Arts Theatre. Running until 27 September 2015

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