Green Day’s American Idiot The Musical is at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh this week (Tue 05 to Sat 09 Feb), the show’s 10th anniversary and the 15th anniversary of the Grammy Award winning original album with this show from Selladoor Productions, but sadly, although the music of Green Day has survived the passage of time, this show is struggling for relevance today in so many areas now.
At its heart, this is the story of three disaffected young men, Johnny (Tom Milner), Will (Samuel Pope) and Tunny (Joshua Dowen), and their attempt to break free of their parents’ lifestyles and opinions and a, to them, very dull suburban life. What should be a story about the rebelliousness and energy of youth starts swiftly to take a downturn when Johnny explains in decreasing levels of daring how he got the money for his bus ticket out of town, and instead of the rebel yell of youth we get more the quiet meow of a kitten asking for warm milk or a puppy dog whimpering for more attention.
One of our trio does not even make his rebel boy journey past the bus stop as he discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant and decides to stay in town. Oddly enough, the story of Will and Heather (Siobhan O’Driscoll) and Will’s inability to mature enough to deal with his new situation is for me the far more interesting story here, far more interesting than Johnny’s stereotypical descent into a drug fuelled existence. Sadly though, Will and Heather are treated as side-line stories here and never allowed to develop properly. What drives Tunny to later join the military is also never really explored here either. Our time of event is never detailed here, but it is close to the original creation of American Idiot, and old news stories on screen clearly reference us to the events of the terrorist attacks upon the USA of September 11th 2001.
Our principal cast here are good, but always fighting against a story line that so often has not travelled well across the cultural divide between Scotland and the USA. Yes, we have taken much from American culture (music, film, comics, food to name a few things), but it has so often for many of us been a bit like watching another culture through a looking glass, and there are many significant cultural and social differences between us both. Balancing what American post-WW2 culture has given us, many of us have issues with the use by America of its political, economic and military might to influence directly and indirectly events on a global scale (often for the worse). Also, the almost religious reverence for the red, white and blue of the star spangled banner is not in our mind-set here. American Idiot is simply not a story of our culture and I think some Americans would struggle too to recognise their youth in this production.
Green Day as a band created some very good songs, but here, when the big opening number is your title song ("American Idiot"), and the response is “limited” from the audience, then that leaves the cast always fighting to recover ground in the show. Perhaps more imaginative choreography and set design would have helped a little here? The Playhouse Theatre stage is also one of the largest in the UK, and perhaps this set would have worked better on a smaller stage. Also, continual issues with sound in the theatre from where I was sitting tonight made all but smaller vocal productions indistinct to hear all too often, and this did not help the production at all. At times, the musical influences on the creation of some of the songs here are more obvious than others, but there are still some fine songs here, and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is a timeless classic.
Part of my problem with this story is that I just don’t find our title character that interesting and care little for what happens to him. The fact that St Jimmy (Luke Friend) is also his drug fuelled alter ego identity is not made that clear (if at all) to the audience and clarity would have introduced so many other elements to the character of Johnny. All too often here, it is Joshua Dowen as Tunny who is stealing this show for me.
There are so many layers to the music of Green Day but, as so often now, we are in a world where stage shows seem to think that vocal volume is the most important thing for a performer to achieve, and that is a pity as some of these songs require real emotion in their performances.
Johnny’s un-named girlfriend Whatsername is well performed here by Sam Lavery, but again, we get to know nothing about her as a person and all too quickly have another “stereotype” on stage.
This show does however have a very tight live band performing the music of Green Day and the fact that I found the band often more interesting than the show itself says a lot.
To be fair to this production, perhaps your enjoyment of it depends upon several factors, and age is a big one here. Also, if you were/are a Green Day fan then it is the perfect show for you.
American Idiot at the time was a sharp commentary on the world that Green Day saw around them, and central to that, the manipulation of the people by the media, and in the world that we now live in with global fake news is perhaps the perfect time for a re-write and an update of this musical to give it contemporary relevance. Also, no one at the time of writing this work could have imagined in their worst nightmares the current state of American politics and how apt the title of this show would now be as a commentary on the current President of the United States of America and his closest administration advisors.
Review by Tom King