REVIEW: Green Day's American Idiot, Sunderland Empire

Amelia Lily and Newton Faulkner,
Amelia Lily and Newton Faulkner,
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Dreadlocks, skater pants and sassy hats sat alongside the more mainstream as punk met proscenium arch at the Sunderland Empire.

Green Day’s explosive punk-rock opera American Idiot shook the Edwardian theatre like its never been shaken before as the angst-ridden, anarchic album-turned-musical knocked seven bells out of the audience.

Opening with clips from 9/11 played on a giant TV set hanging above a grungy urban set, the show immediately set out its stall as a state-of-the-nation story of disillusionment in a W. Bush-led naughties America hellbent on war.

Forged from the 2004 album of the same name, American Idiot tells the tale of Johnny, “Jesus of Suburbia," skillfully played by (a grunged-up) folk rock musician Newton Faulkner, and his friends Will (Steve Rushton) and Tunny (Cellen Chugg Jones).

Fed up with suburban life in Jinglestown, USA, they hatch a plan to escape. But all does not go to plan: Will is forced to stay at home when his girlfriend falls pregnant, and Tunny is seduced by the mass media into joining the army, subsequently losing a leg.

Johnny is seduced by both drugs and love, in the respective forms of alter-ego St Jimmy (Lucas Rush), and the enchanting Whatshername (X-Factor success story Amelia Lily).

Featuring Trainspotting-esque scenes of heroin use, passionate sex and emo-style angst, this is unfamiliar territory for traditional audiences at the Empire. But it's hardly surprising.

As a young teenager in the early nineties, Green Day and their ilk weren’t just the music of rebellion, they were the forbidden fruit.

Playing your copied Nirvana cassettes was one thing - but even the idea of your parents hearing the lyrics to the likes of Basket Case was enough to make you melt with embarrassment.

It’s odd then for a tweeny tail-end Generation X-er such as myself to see Green Day tracks performed as song-and-dance numbers in mainstream theatre - albeit with a chorus in Converse trainers, checked shirts and punky hairdos.

Newton Faulkner.

Newton Faulkner.

The absence of Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s trademark nasal tones is equally peculiar at first. But once your ears and expectations have adjusted, the show blasts you along on shockwaves of snotcore, with a mesmerizing set and songs ranging from the atomic American Idiot title track to the bittersweet Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

But for me it wasn’t the crowd-pleasers and energy-packed sequences which made the show so much as its ability to change down a gear.

Unplugged renditions of slower tracks When It’s Time and Wake Me Up When September Ends where were Faulkner really came into his own in the leading role, almost feeling like an intimate acoustic gig.

Also deserving of a mention is our own Alice Stokoe, from Jarrow, who takes the part of the enigmatic Extraordinary Girl in the hospital hallucination sequence alongside Chugg Jones.

Though inspired by The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia rock operas, and, more surprisingly, Rice/Llloyd Webber outings such as Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar, Green Day never intended American Idiot to become a stage production.

Its oblique narrative, coupled with the fact punk is perhaps not the most ideal medium for carrying plot, led me to suspect those less familiar with the original album and lyrics may struggle to follow the storyline.

It certainly seemed to leave my plus-one somewhat nonplussed in places.

However, as with a traditional Italian opera, you don't need to speak the language to drink in the themes, emotions and powerful music. And who needs a strong plot when you have Green Day tunes blasting you along?

It’s probably fair to say that at least a large chunk of the audience had turned out more due to their love of Green Day than a desire to drink in a gripping yarn.

It may be set 10 years in the past, but American Idiot’s contemporary energy belies the fact that for many it is as much a vehicle for nostalgia as it is a modern piece of fiery musical theatre.

The former, however, is laid bare in an encore-style ensemble edition of 1997 hit Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).

The cast full of smiles and the audience clapping along, it was a much less melancholic version than the original, as featured on the mixtape my girlfriend packed me off to university with in 1998.

In short, don’t be an American (or any other form of) Idiot, and get yourself along to the Empire. You’ll have the time of your life.

>American Idiot runs until Saturday May 28. More info and tickets available here.