I’m worried that not many regular theatre-goers will ‘get’ American Idiot, based on the concept album of the same name by kings of pop punk and the naughties grunge scene Green Day, and written by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. But it’s the third UK tour, and it’s won two Tony Awards, so we must be safe.
There were a lot of Green Day fans in the audience, so there was at least a decent mix of camps, and there were hopefully a few, like me, who fall into both sides. For us in particular, press night at The Palace in Manchester for American Idiot the musical was a roaring success and I’m here to tell you it’s a punk-rock party and worth going to see, Green Day fan or not.
Three young men, discontent with their dull suburban existence go in search of life in the city – well, two young men, one has to stay at home and look after his baby. We follow each of them as they discover themselves and their place in a post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ world.
The plot may be thinly veiled as more of a vehicle for the songs than the other way around, but as a piece of theatre born from such big world ideas so it totally works, and this is what sets American Idiot apart from simpler musicals with one linear plot. This is more of a state of the nation concept about politics and rage than something with a happy clappy ending.
Opening strong with the title track, the punchy bass riffs don’t wait for the audience to catch their breath as hit after hit of Green Day’s 2004 concept album blasts from the live band at the top of the stage, a production decision making it clear that the music is at the forefront of this show. Below them the cast launch themselves through raunchy and raucous choreography as our three lost boys descend into some dark times in their life.
The innovative staging levels means we get insight into the trio’s independent lives throughout, as Will stays at home and gets high on his sofa, Tunny goes off to the horrors of war and our protagonist Johnny loses himself in drugs and a party lifestyle. The show is strongest when the three stories weave together on tracks like ‘Give Me Novacaine’ and ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’, a good message about how coming together and supporting each other is the only way through hard times.
Tom Milner is standout performance of the evening, somehow easily keeping his vocals up with the frenetic energy of the production, but also skilfully drawing us all into a five-minute near-silent performance of his character’s battle with heroin addiction in the second half. I think it’s the only time the music stopped. You could hear the audience being repulsed and enraptured in equal measure as he writhed and spit foam across the stage for one more hit, completing with a stunning acoustic performance of When It’s Time. Sam Lavery as Whatshername supports their heroin chic lifestyle beautifully.
The production remains grungy as the underbelly of the city but is also clever. The chorus dancers regularly become ‘shadows’ in the city, and Johnny’s dangerous alter ego St Jimmy, played confidently by Luke Friend, regularly moves between them. When Jimmy’s father dies, as Billie Joe’s did, to inspire the song Wake Me Up When September Ends these shadows stand on all levels of the set with umbrellas and scatter autumn leaves across the set. It’s an iconic moment.
American Idiot is at The Palace theatre in Manchester until 6th April 2019 and there are still a few tickets available on this celebratory ten-year anniversary tour. Remember, it’s not for the faint hearted, get them while you can!
Reviewer: Jo Flynn
Reviewed: 2nd April 2019
North West End Rating: ★★★★