American Idiot

July 3, 2016 | By | 1 Reply More

★★★☆☆      Energetic

St Stephen’s: Saturday 2 – Monday 4 July 2016
Review by Hugh Simpson

Full of sound but lacking in fury, Shoogly Peg Productions’ American Idiot is stuffed with talent and energy, but ultimately lacks focus.

The 2009 Broadway musical, based on the 2004 concept album of the same name by US pop-punk band Green Day, tells the story of three young men whose dreams of leaving their smalltown home for the lights of New York turn sour in a variety of ways. One turns to drugs, one joins the army and is wounded, and one never gets to New York, instead staying behind with his pregnant girlfriend.

The Cast of American Idiot. Photo Shoogly Peg Productions

The Cast of American Idiot. Photo Shoogly Peg Productions

No-one would look to a rock opera based on a concept album for understated subtlety, so it comes as no surprise that the book does not provide much in the way of originality or profundity, or that the characters are wafer-thin. Instead, the piece needs to draw its strength from its drive and energy.

Unfortunately, a talented and committed cast are often fighting a losing battle on this front. The clichés and predictable scenarios on display could really only be overcome by an over-the-top, cartoonish presentation, with sensory overload driving home the points about the self-serving mendacity of much of the media that is even more true in the days of the Twittersphere and Trump.

Instead, much of this is confused or even apologetic – the constant swearing and scenes of drug use would surely not shock many, failing as they do to convince coming from such a polite and well turned-out cast.

In what is a virtually sung-through musical, the lyrics carry a great deal of weight, so it is a shame that they are largely inaudible. It is not simply that they are drowned out by the music, which while loud, is not as deafening as might be expected – and is certainly quieter than in some recent musicals.

balance

The real problem is one of balance. St Stephen’s is a wonderful venue in many ways, but is far from ideal for amplified music. Despite being screened, the drums still overpower everything – Green Day are very much a ‘guitar band’, but the guitars here are largely lost in an echoey, undifferentiated sound that does no favours to the band or the singers.

A scene from American Idiot. Photo - Shoogly Peg Productions

A scene from American Idiot. Photo – Shoogly Peg Productions

There is no shortage of effort from the performers. Jamie Duffy, as the central figure Johnny, has a great deal of energy, and is particularly convincing in his slower, ballad-like numbers. Mirko De Pasquale and Sean J Docherty, as his friends Tunny and Will, are particularly badly served by the sound problems, but have strong emotional qualities.

For such a recent musical, there are significant problems with the gender balance. Any piece where the main female character is called Whatsername would obviously have problems passing the Bechdel test, but it is dispiriting to see the women in the story doing little but mope after self-pitying suburban boys. The character sung so effectively here by Arianna De Melo is billed as ‘Extraordinary Girl’ but may as well be ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, with the female characters being depicted entirely in terms of the effects they have on men’s lives.

Perhaps this is meant as some kind of satire, and would appear as such in a more extreme production. Here it just seems lame. It is noticeable that the most intriguing female role here – drug dealer St Jimmy, played with real spark and presence by Ruby Leslie – was originally written as a male, and indeed played by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong on occasion. St Jimmy may or may not be intended as Johnny’s alter-ego; like so much else, it is impossible to tell what is going on without recourse to the programme notes.

howl of rage

Lori Stott, meanwhile, invests Heather with more sympathy than the stereotypical, underwritten role merits, and has an extremely good voice. Linzi Devers’s Whatsername really comes into her own with Letter Bomb, a howl of rage on splitting up with Johnny, where the energy levels are suddenly ratcheted up several notches, and problems of understanding melt away in a ball of drive and spiteful energy that is the show’s highlight.

The Cast of American Idiot. Photo Shoogly Peg Productions

The Cast of American Idiot. Photo Shoogly Peg Productions

Matt Hall and Zoe McRae also impress in their solo features, although once again it is not immediately clear who their characters are or what role they play in the story.

Derek Douglas’s direction does give enough movement and variation to keep the momentum up, while Lisa Ritchie’s choreography makes inventive and varied use of the large space available.

As with many recent musicals, conscious of the financial demands a large chorus makes, there are not too many features for the huge, committed ensemble on display here. They seize every opportunity, even if they do not always look quite scuzzy enough.

Indeed, there can be few criticisms of any of the performers, who are uniformly accomplished and dedicated. It is a shame that the production as a whole lacks clarity and vision.

Running time 1 hour 45 minutes (including one interval)
St Stephen’s, St Stephen St, EH3 5AB
Saturday 2 – Monday 4 July 2016
Evenings at 7 pm; Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

Shoogly Peg Productions on Facebook: shooglypegpro.
Shoogly Peg Productions website: https://shooglypegpro.wordpress.com

ENDS

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