You settle down in the Hammersmith Apollo. It’s a bit nippy, clearly not built for a stage production, and the lighting rig is blocking your view. None of that matters, you think, pulling your coat back on and sipping a £47 pint of Carling. You’ve shelled out to see American Idiot, based on the music of a band you loved – or at least grudgingly sort of liked – when you were a teenager. Either the next few hours are going to be amazing, or at the very least they are going to raise a few ironic chuckles.
Somewhere in your mind you know that Green Day’s music is shallow, but loud, and fun, and you’re an intelligent person who knows how to spot the “real” punks on whose aesthetic the “pop” punks like Green Day trade. You know that Green Day are sharp enough to know that difference, too. You know that Michael Mayer, who co-wrote the book with Billy Joe Armstrong, is probably “in” on “it.” You were slightly addicted to American Idiot the album back in 2004, and you think there are interesting things that could be done in American Idiot the musical.
The curtain rises slowly to soundbites from Iraq-era George Bush and you think, sarcastically, oh, this is so edgy. You’re prepared for at best a guilty pleasure, at worst a silly distraction to be half-mocked later in the pub.
You don’t know what’s to come. Oh, how could you know?
The moment the curtain reaches its peak a young man in ripped jeans pounces upon the audience and loudly whines: “I DON’T WANNA BE AN AMERICAN IDIOT!” and it never stops. Others join the chorus of nasal quasi-American accents and you have a headache already; whether that’s from the shoddy PA system or the singers themselves is and will remain unclear. There is almost no dialogue – this is technically a sung-through production – but what little there is makes you very glad there isn’t any more.
By the time the five-part, fifteen-minute Jesus of Suburbia ends, you have no idea who any of these characters are or what they’re doing, but you guess they’re on a bus to the city? One of them is pregnant?
They are directionless young people, you assume. You assume this because that is the plot of roughly every Broadway production of the last 20 years, but you don’t know this because you can barely hear the lyrics.
With a creeping horror you realise that Green Day’s second-to-last album is just being played at you verbatim with no consideration for voice nor character. American Idiot was a concept album, you recall, and you don’t know the story. Which is a shame, because there really wasn’t one, and there still isn’t one. It was just a collection of pop songs from some very rich men who never really had the lives of these broke and aimlessly angry characters they’ve made up. Some very rich men who are more than happy to take your money by whining extremely loudly at the nebulous “enemy” through a terrible PA system. The enemy is the system that exploits you, and you really hope that someone gets the irony in making a jukebox musical with that message and this is actually a huge meta-joke.
You wonder if you can actually die of embarrassment.
There are gestures towards self-awareness and it might redeem itself in the second act, and you take your eye off the door but then you think: “is that actually Billy Joe Armstrong conducting at the side there like a drill sergeant, or is that just someone who likes to dress up like him,” and you suddenly understand that this has been earnest all along.
There’s a nice cello-led arrangement of Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the only point in the show in which the lead Alex Nee isn’t entirely flat, although it’s uninspired. Even for the hardcore fan, this is like watching an X Factor special: the performances are lacklustre, the production second-rate and haphazard. At some point, the projector (which was giving life to the admittedly quite-good set) breaks down and the city cuts out, leaving you with a large Windows splash screen as a background while the system reboots. The show goes on.
You cannot tear your eyes away from a pas de deux (which you later learn means “two people having a dance”) that involves our protagonist Johnny and his unnamed love interest connected by a tourniquet while they writhe about on heroin. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
Untold eons later, the curtain falls, the audience goes wild, but it is not over. This was only the first act. It will never be over. This show has already won several awards. Universal are making a film out of it. American Idiot will run forever.
You thought this would be funny. You have been an idiot.
American Idiot runs at Apollo Hammersmith until December 16. Tickets here.