A tame literalising of Green Day’s eponymous post-9/11 suburban fairytale, American Idiot works hard to replicate the band’s punkish appeal, but forcing the album into a linear narrative only succeeds in stripping the music of resonance and the cast of dimensionality.
Strung around the thirteen tracks of Green Day’s anthemic early-noughties release is the ragged storyline of Johnny (Netwon Faulkner) aka the self-proclaimed ‘Jesus of Suburbia’, who, along with his two waster mates, Tunny and Will, struggles to escape the decrepit hypocrisy of Jingletown in search of love, music and a life worth living.
Johnny’s world, as realised in Sara Perk’s colourful multi-level set, is an off-kilter urban playground of scaffolding and wire fencing that gives the energetic cast plenty of opportunity to both escape — as in Johnny’s bloodshot alter-ego St Jimmy, who endlessly swings, leaps and slides around the stage — or to be confined, like Steve Rushton’s grudging new father Will, who spends much of the run time trapped in the upper right corner with his girlfriend and new baby. Tim Deiling’s moody lighting reflects the brashness of the music and makes the most of the dark corners and metallic surfaces with dramatic neons and strobes that shine through the panelling in blasts of brightness that suggest stars, or, if you squint, bullet holes.
The cast, bounding around in skinny jeans and ripped leggings circa emo-punk 2004, make a good play at youthful, although their dance skills are wasted on choreography that doesn’t demand much more of them than head-banging and novice-level air-guitar. The singing is more successful, with the female characters, especially lead Amelia Lily (the epically Bechdel Test-failing ‘Whatshername’), being infinitely more audible than their growling, spitting male counterparts. Faulkner, as our hero, Johnny, seems unsure in the louder songs, but is effortlessly engaging in the more balladic numbers, completely at home with his guitar and a cold spotlight. A special mention to Llandyll Gove who, on press night, stepped into St Jimmy’s (Lucas Rush) battered Doc Martens at the eleventh hour with impressive swagger.
All of American Idiot’s production heft however, only serves to accentuate the musical’s biggest difficulty: Billy Joe Armstrong’s woefully underwritten book. Characters are sketchy stereotypes of disaffection, Johnny’s prodigal journey given no narrative structure aside from dates announced diary-style before every musical number, suggesting time drifting by while neither the characters nor their circumstances undergo much in the way of transformation. Perhaps in a cleverer show this vacuous storylining would pass as a mirror to the empty promises of the Bush administration or the farcically protracted ‘War on Terror’. In American Idiot however, it’s painfully obvious that the audience are supposed to feel for these characters, their dilemmas, their confusion… and we don’t. We barely know them.
Perhaps the music, then, will do the narrative heavy-lifting? This certainly seems to have been Armstrong’s intention. But for the Green Day-uninitiated, although the album’s pumping anger and anthemic choruses can still get audiences up and out of their seats, the simplistic lyrics do nothing to enlighten what’s going on onstage. Stripped of both musical and narrative coherence, American Idiot in the end is as empty as George W Bush’s glassy stare.