For an ageing rocker such as myself there seemed something quite unsettling about ‘civilising’ Green Day and their iconic American Idiot album. Allowing the legendary new-age punk rockers to become ‘mainstream’ and opening them up to the theatre luvvies...
How could these raw, angry, anarchic songs transfer to a West End musical? Would we be watching a sanitised version of the album, ripping out the very heart of the band’s work?
I was not worried for long – this is certainly not a cleaned-up version of Green Day’s work.
The language is ‘colourful’. There is sex, there are drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – of course. The music is loud, it’s energetic, it’s passionate and wildly infectious. Real, guitar-stroking musicians are on stage and visible throughout the show.
But American Idiot is more than just a Green Day compilation album.
It captures the social commentary that underpins the music of Billie Joe Armstrong et al and is a theme throughout the distinct music of these working class boys.
The punk-rock opera follows the fortunes of three disaffected young friends Johnny, Tunny and Theo trapped in mundane lives post 9/11 as America finds itself strangled by sadness, anger and fear. Each battles to escape the disillusionment and find their American dream – in very different ways.
Johnny, the self-proclaimed ‘Jesus of Surburbia’ is the key protagonist played by the wonderfully talented singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner. Jumping on a bus to the big city for a new life, he falls under the spell of St Jimmy and a spiral of drugs, parties, highs and deep lows.
His only hope of salvation seems to be his love for ‘Whatsername’, played by X Factor star Amelia Lily.
Faulkner is fun and engaging to watch but particularly shines when he has a guitar in hand and puts his fantastic, throaty voice to work in some of the slower numbers. A highlight was Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
As the charismatic, soul-seeker St Jimmy, Lucas Rush brings a rush of unfettered energy to the stage and raises the tempo with such fast and furious tracks as St Jimmy. He is charming and fun, but Rush brings a very sinister edge to the role which was is quite chilling in Know Your Enemy (one of the 21st Century Breakdown tracks that make it into the production).
Johnny’s best friends are Tunny, played by Alexis Gerred, and Will, played by Steve Rushton.
Gerred steals the show in his role as Tunny. With his wonderfully, gravelly rock star voice, he is a dominant singer but also brings a lot of humour to the first half. Tunny decides to swap his couch potato lifestyle for army life – with tragic consequences.
Gerred’s performance of Before the Lobotomy, in which he drifts off from his hospital bed into a drug-induced fantasy which Extraordinary Girl is jaw-droppingly good and incredibly emotional.
Meanwhile pal Theo finds himself trapped at home with a pregnant girlfriend and a bleak future.
Some of the finest moments in the show come when the three friends come together in song from their parallel lives such as their ultimate moment of despair in 21 Guns and the very emotional Wake Me Up When September Ends.
There is strong support in the female roles from Lily, Alice Stokoe as Theo’s girlfriend Heather and Karina Hind as Extraordinary Girl.
The stage set is very versatile and adaptable – the introduction of the city bus for Holiday is impressive – without seeming too grand and elaborate.
American Idiot has captured all of the raw energy, passion and dissent of Green Day’s music and released it onto the stage in an explosive, compelling, ground-breaking punk rock-opera. Naughty but nice – it certainly fed that rebellious, little punk-rocker that still lurks inside of me.
The final song of the night is Good Riddance (Time of Your Life). Did we have the time of our life? You bet we did.
Runs at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until Saturday.
By Diane Davies