I recently described the West End as hurtling ever closer to theme park oblivion with its over-reliance on the tried, already tested and familiar to produce jukebox musicals out of old pop catalogues, or in the case of Let It Be, not so much a musical as a tribute band concert in the guise of one. But exceptions can prove the rule, and American Idiot is exceptional - a bracing blast of kinetic energy and blistering musical daring with lighting that burns into your retina and sound that threatens to burst your eardrums. It is, almost literally, blindingly brilliant.
Jenna Rubaii (The Extraordinary Girl) and Thomas Hettrick (Tunny) in American Idiot at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton Photo: John Daughtry
But then the show also does something more - it pierces your heart, too, as you become drawn into the weary world of its lost young characters, searching for love, jobs and meaning, and not finding much of any in the nihilistic, war-mongering America of today.
Lots of musicals, of course, are based on well-known films or books. American Idiot, however, builds an urgent and complex narrative out of a bestselling 2004 album by punk rock band Green Day. As developed by Green Day’s frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and the show’s director Michael Mayer, they bring it to pulsating three dimensions that, like the best rock gigs, also knocks down the fourth wall.
The result is part musical, part pop video come to life. Dazzlingly fuelled by Steven Hoggett’s jagged movement - at once spontaneous seeming yet rigorously precise in their combined impact - the songs take thrilling theatrical form, just as The Who’s Tommy once did. With a live onstage band of six, supplemented at times by members of the cast, you not only see the music being made, but you can feel it, too. This is as visceral as it is vivid.
Performed on an industrial set of moving scaffolding platforms and a wall of over 30 video monitors, whose screens are a flurry of constantly changing graphics and archive film, the constant assault of white lights and moving images can be a little overpowering. The youthful all-American touring company bring such boundless and irrepressible energy to the stage that you don’t always want the distractions.
There’s also a hallucinatory scene on flying wires that makes the show feel like a trippy successor to Hair, and Rent. Those comparisons are amplified, too, as the show moves through war (like Hair’s Claude who signs up for the army, so Tunnny does here) to drugs (as Rent’s Mimi and Roger share them, so do Johnny and the enigmatically monikered Whatsername here). But the show is grounded by the vibrant rock melodies of Green Day to emerge as the best pop/rock show since Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out reinvented the catalogue not of Billie Joe Armstrong but Billy Joel. “It’s something unpredictable,/ but in the end it’s right,/ I hope you had the time of your life,” goes the last song. It was hard to disagree as the curtain fell.
The show provides an astonishing marker that musicals and rock music don’t have to clash but can co-exist in the same restless, revolutionary show. It’s the single most exciting and original live rock musical I’ve ever seen.