American Idiot, review: Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, until May 25

American Idiot. Picture by Mark Dawson Photography
American Idiot. Picture by Mark Dawson Photography

Musical theatre? Well yes, but not as we know it. Green Day’s American Idiot fills the Congress Theatre this week with pulsing energy, pounding music and a defiantly alternative message.

No cute comedy, no sparkly dance numbers, no sweet romances. American Idiot stands virtually alone – the musical Rent is perhaps the only parallel – in using musical theatre as a vehicle for sub-culture. And the effect is incomparably powerful.

A crackly, dated-looking TV screen opens the action with snatches of 2001 newscasts, and we are instantly whisked back into the political crises of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and a world of alienated, disenfranchised young people. Welcome, sings this bold and gifted ensemble, to a new kind of tension: we’re not the ones who’re meant to follow...

The characters are not exactly nuanced, and the story is not complex, which is just as well since actual dialogue is pretty minimal, and lyrics are often indistinct. But this is not a show for subtlety; it is all big numbers and stark, striking images.

In any case, they are singing mainly to the converted. Thursday’s opening night saw a majority audience of ecstatic fans who knew all the numbers and loved every line. The minority, of Green Day novices and curious admirers, actually loved it too. Sitting directly in front of me were a trio of mum, daughter and grandma – with only twenty-something daughter knowing all the lyrics, but all three having great fun.

The sound is phenomenal – thank goodness the Congress Theatre sound system was significantly upgraded in the recent refurb – and the musicians, including an excellent four-piece band positioned above the set, are brilliant. Green Day has a distinctive identity and sound, drawing occasionally on conventional rock but adding a raw, driving edge.

Ironically, it’s when the volume comes down a couple of notches that these guys really nail their musicianship. One superb, plaintive second-act ballad has a Leonard Cohen timbre, while Wake Me Up When September Ends is a Green Day classic that needs no amplification.

And then the message. American Idol does not preach, does not harangue, it simply records: an alienated generation, a defiant counter-culture, and the descent of its central character into drug addiction. As a piece of education, incidentally, it beats all those PSHE drugs awareness programmes any day.

Principals Tom Milner, Luke Friend, Joshua Dowen and Sam Lavery all give every ounce of themselves in roles fuelled with emotion. Milner’s despairing, disintegrating addict Johnny is memorable – an angular, skeletal piece of physical acting that leaves the audience as drained as himself.

Scores from our three ladies? Nines from mum and grandma, and a perfect ten from rapturous daughter. That sums it up nicely.

American Idiot is at the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne this week. Evening performances on Friday (8.30) and Saturday (7.30) and matinee on Saturday at 2.30.

Click here to buy your tickets online.

Joanne Clifton heads to Eastbourne with the Rocky Horror Show. Click here to read our interview.