On other occasions, the pedant in me would cavil at matters such as the six-month pregnancy or the Arabic writing which unrolls on the video monitors from left to right. American Idiot, though, deserves more consideration as it comes into London for a fortnight at the massive Hammersmith Apollo at the end of its UK (but American-cast) tour.
The Apollo is known as a rock venue, and so proves an appropriate crossover space for this staged version of Green Day’s 2004 album (plus a few additional tracks). Michael Mayer’s staging keeps the vast stage animated as much as possible, and the band hit respectable volumes without drowning the lyrics. (It’s a basic two-guitar-bass-drums setup, with keyboardist and musical director Evan Jay Newman trying to remain unobtrusive stage left but at one glorious point conducting the rhythm section by means of headbanging.) The spoken text is minimal, probably amounting to less than the lyrics of one of Billie Joe Armstrong’s raucously tuneful and unflinchingly honest songs. Respect is due for the ambition of creating an all-but-sung-through staged rock opera.
As for the story, this is, in effect, a Hair for Generation Y: less concerned with identifying a coherent youth subculture, and certainly far less with championing it in the face of the straight mainstream. Three late-teen friends from Bush-II-era smalltown America take diverging paths through life: one to reluctant fatherhood and alcoholic apathy; one to military service and hospitalisation; the principal figure Johnny to the big city, love and heroin, before all three more or less catch themselves on. It’s not profound or complex, but it is comparatively mature. One serious defect, however, is that the female voice is audible in this show no more than it is in rock in general: women here make token contributions only. (Another is that lighting designer Kevin Adams really needs to learn some techniques other than flashing white beams straight at the audience.)
In a case like this, one needs to look not just at the creativity but also at the placement. The choice of venue also indicates that, for this London leg at least, the show is being marketed more to a rock than a theatre constituency. Consequently, Mayer’s staging, perhaps primitive by theatrical standards, is adventurous for a gig.