FringeReview UK 2019
Making its UK debut directed and choreographed by Racky Plews, with a set by Sara Perks’ with a gantry above. Tim Deiling’s lighting too is exceptional. Chris Whybrow’s sound is fierce. Richard Morris supervises the songs Robert Wicks, Chris George, Nick Kent and Charlie Maguire perform throughout. Till April 20th and touring.
‘This is the end of the end of the world’ anti-hero Johnny proclaims, and maybe it is. The end of history’s been cancelled. It’s 10th September 2001 and no-one knows what happens next and for most of the next two hours, nor do we.
American Idiot is a 2004 concept album by Green Day, that’s a punk-pop group not person, though led by Billie Joe Armstrong. It does have strong songs, strong storyline and in this production superlatively hard-working and talented actors, lighting, set and thrash musicians. It’s grainy, grungy, viscerally exciting – though till the second act monotonously so. But it’s utterly different. We desperately need this kind of musical.
Three young men start an odyssey from suburbs of Jingletown to the bright lights. Classic On the Road territory. The three-man trope from the 19th century looms: The Pickwick Papers or Three Men in a Boat and Soldiers Three is foolproof. What could possibly go wrong? Well, it’s far grimmer. That should be good.
From the shouty appreciation of a well-packed house, it’s clear quite a few people know the songs at least, and they’re certainly not the problem. It’s just the rock group above drown out singing, crucially the important lyrics; acting, and any storyline bar a few bubbles breaking to the surface. WTF are they saying? They’re miserable? Ho-hum, it’s suburbia, idiot. And everyone’s touching groins more than at any theatre show, as some remarked. But… there’s always hope the second act will inspire; it does.
Making its UK debut directed and choreographed by Racky Plews, there’s no let up for the 19-strong cast and band quartet. The routines spin out in a packed space, and the ensemble’s first rate. Theatre Royal’s stage is a little small and this explains the explosive tight impact this work makes. If there are adjustments, they’re consummate.
Sara Perks’ slick design with a gantry above with mesh removed, and various propos like beds which allow someone to be sucked into it, is beautifully realised. The set, a mix of basement, and scrawled-on concrete jungle is distinctly superior. Tim Deiling’s lighting too is exceptional – from a rainbow of different blues and reds to a sudden spangle of stars at the close of the first act. Deiling can hollow out his light too, and Perks’ set invites all kinds of nooks.
Chris Whybrow’s sound is fierce – like many such, too much so for this space. It could be toned down. Richard Morris supervises the songs and produces an orchestrated punch. Robert Wicks, Chris George, Nick Kent and Charlie Maguire perform throughout.
It’s worth telling the story here. The three young men fan out. Samuel Pope’s Will stays because his girlfriend Heather’s pregnant (Siobhan O’Driscoll), but he pines. Eventually she finds a rock star. Tunny (Joshua Dowen) finds the city too much and begins identifying with a hero-image. He joins up, fights in Iraq and is wounded.
There’s some fine songs like the title ‘American Idiot’ Tom Milner’s Johnny who takes the burden of solos, discovers drugs and a desire for the impossibly beautiful Whatsername, Sam Lavery whose voice cuts through the thrash textures better than virtually anyone. Her solos are a true delight.
But it’s only the drugs and his alter ego, Luke Friend’s St Jimmy, looking like Adam and the Ants (the livery still flickering after over 20 years by then) who give him the courage to approach her and they rapturously engage in drug-fuelled sex. He never can remember her name though.
That second act opens like O’Casey’s Silver Tassie tackling war-wounded collides with Kushner’s Angels in America as Raquel Jones’ Extraordinary Girl visits the badly wounded Tunny in flapping diaphanous wings like a nurse to salve his life-changing injuries, attended first by medics then a hospital staff. Both he and Johnny cry out for morphine.
Tunny and the girl fall in love as Johnny jacks up in spasm, a parody of his jacking off earlier. ‘Wake Me Up When September’s Over’ to a solo guitar continues the minutes of hush after the brash-out bash-out earlier. It’s beautiful and confirms Milner’s warm baritonal vocals. This act is infinitely quieter though the band return in force just as we pick up the narrative.
Gradually though Johnny’s drug-taking becomes alienating, and though Whatsername parries his knife assault, he tells her he chooses St Jimmy and drugs over her, and though she tells him St Jimmy’s an illusion, she leaves him. The three men meet again, very changed at their old 7/11 store where Johnny’s sold his guitar to ride back home; and kicked his drugs. There’s bleak hope.
There’s those jerky moments of self-realisation. Tunny’s got the Extraordinary Girl for his pains, Heather and Will can at least meet to swap the baby in a truce, whilst Rockstar hovers. But Johnny? There’s a bitter harvest of self-knowledge, but through dreams and knowing he’s whole, there’s hope.
The songs storyline, set lighting and performances are unique. No wonder it stormed Broadway. Some must have known the storyline which along with the lyrics (and titles aren’t listed) is obliterated. That’s a great pity. Less striving to prove it isn’t a rock-opera musical people can understand would have ensured exactly that. It spoils the evening to have to consult Wikipedia. everything else though is so strong that if you consult beforehand – and there’s a very detailed one – you might enjoy it far more. It’s still revolutionary.