Eschewing the West End and instead making its London debut at the cavernous Hammersmith Apollo, Green Day musical American Idiot strikes me on first sighting as a strange combination.
On the one hand it's a jukebox musical akin to the multitude that now fill the capital's playhouses, but on the other it's an explicitly concert experience that has a genuine dark side (though perhaps not as dark as it might like to think - there's nothing less rock 'n' roll than fake tattoos).
A better comparison is Spring Awakening, in that it's a coming-of-age tale of disaffected youth with a heavy punk-rock vibe. Though it lacks the narrative structure of that show, what Michael Mayer's production does contain is a brilliant marriage of choreography and design and an all-American cast with talent to burn.
Set in the aftermath of 9/11, it sees Johnny (Alex Nee - who bears a striking resemblance to Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong) setting off from his suburban home in search of love and excitement under the bright lights, only to find himself mired in a mess of disillusionment and heroin. Meanwhile his friend Will (Casey O'Farrell) struggles to come to terms with early fatherhood while Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) experiences the hell of service in Iraq.
The songs, from Green Day's bestselling 2004 studio album, reflect the mood rather than motor the narrative. Highlights include the opening blast of the title song, with a multitude of monitors - including one suspended in a shopping trolley - relaying news footage from the time and reminding us of the media-saturation that defines these kids. "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", performed acoustically (the cast all prove handy with a guitar), could hardly seem more apposite while the military sequence that accompanies "Give Me Novacaine" is electrifying - due in no small part to the fact the choreographer is Black Watch's Steven Hoggett.
The experience is somewhat akin to watching a sequence of live music videos, whether it's the aerial acrobatics that open Act 2 or the mournful ballad "Wake Me Up When September Ends". Hoggett's choreography is absolutely airtight while the company perform with admirable depth of feeling - no small feat considering they're heavily miked and must make an impression to an audience of over 3,000.
I can't say the narrative, which resolves on a surprisingly optimistic note, always makes sense, nor is it particularly easy to follow. And from where I was sitting (row G of the stalls) the volume levels bordered on the uncomfortable. But there is something about this show that grabs you where it counts and doesn't let go. The West End just got itself a noisy neighbour, and it's well worth a hearing.
- Theo Bosanquet
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