Green Day’s American Idiot by Guild Musical Theatre Group (GMTG), Debating Hall, Guild of Students, Saturday 25th November 2017.
The powerful voices and commanding presence of every performer stands out in this punk rock musical
Despite being a Drama & Theatre student myself and having appeared in one production, this was the first piece of Guild Drama to have seen as a spectator. Having attended some regional pieces that Birmingham has to offer, it was a pleasant change to sit in on a show put on solely by university students. My experience of musical theatre has room for improvement; I was unaware that Green Day’s 2004 chart-topping album had been adapted for the stage. At least I was familiar with a few of their songs.
There are several rooms in the Guild that the Drama societies can hire for their show runs. Any that make it into the Debating Hall are bound to have high production values, in terms of technical capabilities as well as audience capacity. As for the society, GMTG of course had their own conducted band to drive the show through from the first to last note. Sound waves from electric guitars and percussion permeated the hall right from the first number, where the show gets its name. The atmosphere almost reminded me of Footloose, better known in the States, in that a we’re presented with a world where youngsters counter the status quo. The ensemble was headed by three hardened rebels, Johnny, Will and Tunny, against a backdrop of blinding strobe light (there was a sign warning of this upon entrance). The former of these (Iain Alexander), who refers to himself as “Jesus of Suburbia”, engaged in a frenzy of headbanging and impassioned song towards the audience. All with a hopeless aim to abandon their ‘suburban existence’, the three revel in alcohol and protest against the systems laid down by the Bush administration. With the portrayal of this in the mainstream media, two television screens high above the stage displayed images of western propaganda, notably for the Iraq War. Later on in the show, the society had their own recordings of the anti-hero and his lost love, for example, which helped anchor the troubles of adult life.
Eventually, Will (Will Paxton) and Tunny (Callum Thompson) go their separate ways. One has made his partner pregnant and becomes isolated at home from her and their baby; the other joins the military and is sent into war. As the script is dominated by song rather than spoken dialogue, some moments in the narrative were unclear, which justifies the importance of vocal diction. Johnny meanwhile is left ‘alone’, without any ‘friends’ or ‘girls’. This only appeared to last so long when Whatsername (Antonia Forrest) stood high above on a piece of raised staging during ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’. As well as an earthy singing voice, Alexander also had a skill for acoustic guitar, and this may have enhanced any investment the audience had in his character. Only to be expected in the anti-social community in which he lives, Johnny becomes exposed to a life of sex and drugs. This was dealt with somewhat crudely, but was probably necessary to shed light on his loss of integrity. One of the characters, St. Jimmy, who actually serves as Johnny’s drug-addicted alter ego, tossed dollar bills in the air and stood proudly on an upstage platform to cement influence over his victim’s mind. To demonstrate musical theatre’s realistic and interactive style, many performers broke out into the centre aisle between the audience. This was most appropriate towards the end when a military procession marched towards the stage as the cast celebrated coming together again. At this point I expected the show to have ended, although the slow change in light indicated a progression of one year as Johnny reflects on his past relationship with Whatsername.
Although the narrative primarily revolved around Johnny as the anti-hero, each named character had struggles of their own, especially the group of women who must find “the balance between rage and love”. In the number: ‘Letterbomb’, feminine power was foregrounded in a routine where the dancers and Whatsername assert freedom and independence from patriarchy. Tunny, meanwhile, is successful in love with Extraordinary Girl (Shira Abkin), a nurse who tends to his injuries and hallucinations in the war zone. Accompanied by images of a heart monitor, and full military uniform costume, these scenes justified the nihilistic behaviour of the youths; war is seen as the only alternative. Typical though it is of musicals, love is a theme that invariably works to repair fractured lives and relationships. Letters were a key property of communication throughout the production and reflected the period, hence the absence of mobiles. The production team split the stage to have a sofa and television box stage right, mainly for Will to wallow in his depression. Moreover, the musicians had sufficient room along the upstage and although visible, were not considered a part of the performance world. The ensemble donned a mutual style of dress: torn jeans, chequered shirts and black lipstick seemed to prevail. This group of almost twenty always had a vital role when on (and at times off) stage; their choral movement bustled with energy and carried the emotions ingrained into each song.
It was a privilege for me to have a ticket to the last of GMTG’s five shows. They are one of the largest companies in the Guild of Students and so have every right to charge more for tickets in order to make up all that is put in. Just by looking at the programme credits, the scale of production is apparent, as is the talent of each individual who captivated us with their relentless enthusiasm in performance.