American Idiot: The Musical, review: Pulsating Green Day grunge-fest throbs with energy of a Billie Joe Armstrong gig

Arts Theatre, London

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You can say what you like about American Idiot but a feeble Sondheim rip-off it resoundingly ain't.

This pounding stage transfer of the 2004 hit album by punk-pop pranksters Green Day garnered a couple of Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 2010 and that production, re-cast, went on a UK tour two years later.

For the show's West End premiere, though, Racky Plews has directed and choreographed a sharp-witted version that throbs with some of the energy of a rock gig (if minus the feeling of unpredictability) while being shrewdly calibrated to suit the intimacy of the 350-seater Arts Theatre.

The sound balance is excellent: you can hear all of Billie Joe Armstrong's lyrics even on the odd occasion when you rather wish you couldn't. Though playing broad-brush archetypes, the performers (especially Aaron Sidwell as Johnny) are able to connect with the audience on a human scale. The quieter moments count for something. 

It's perhaps a shame that the sense of numbing media bombardment now has to emanate from one video monitor rather than from banks of them. The TV set is snowing as we take our seats, clearing for abrupt snatches of news coverage of the Twin Towers collapsing, George W Bush in “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” mode and, amongst the dismaying vox pops, the man who says “I'm thinking Italy” when asked who the US should invade next. 

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Cast of American Idiot, Green Day Musical

 

Cue those thrashing chords and a wonderfully warped and manic letting-rip on “Don't wanna be American idiot/Don't wanna nation under the new media”. This sets the scene for a virtually through-sung 90 minutes in which the album's themes of post 9/11 malaise are provided with a context (at once graphically grungy and sketchy) in the story of three slacker would-be rebels desperate for a cause and their efforts to escape suburbia.  Alexis Gerred's meatily voiced Tunny impulsively joins the military, while Steve Rushton's Will lapses into sofa-bound drunken despair at impending then actual fatherhood.

The main focus is Johnny who takes his guitar and his caustic alienation to the big city. Aaron Sidwell transfixingly communicates the youth's show of cocky, mocking punk-bravado and the underlying insecurity that sees him topple from iconoclasm to heroin-addicted self-destruction when malevolently irresponsible alter ego St Jimmy (Lucas Rush sporting a blond Mohican to his black one) sets himself up as a rival to the girl of his dreams, Amelia Lily's Whatsername. 

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Amelia Lily, Aaron Sidwell, Cast of American Idiot

The production negotiates the shifts of mood with flair and incisiveness – there's a hilarious recruitment video that makes life in the army look like the sexiest possible way of getting in shape and there are live cheerleaders with pom poms in one hand and bombs in the other.  The appealingly driven raucousness of Green Day's music and its patches of angst-y sensitivity are powerfully served by the vibrant company and instrumentalists.  If the inadequate book prevents them from convincing you that American Idiot is the Hair of its generation, they give this revival a pulsating raison d'etre.

To 27 September; 020 7836 8463