Sound and fury, signifying…

Or, a list of things I learned at last Friday’s matinee performance of American Idiot at the Palace Theatre in Manchester:

1.  The show is loud.

2.  I mean, really really loud. I like rock musicals, and rock musicals should be loud, but this one is LOUD.

3.  Although not loud enough to drown out the two women sitting behind me who talked all the way through, but it would probably have taken an apocalypse to shut them up.

4.  This is exciting music, more varied than you expect, and it works well in a theatre…

5.  …particularly when paired with Stephen Hoggett’s restless, jagged choreography, which is the best I’ve seen in a musical in years.

6.  And that’s a good thing, because Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics for the show are mostly shallow, whiny, tedious crap sung by barely-two-dimensional characters, and they do not, in this presentation, add up to anything resembling a play.

7.  The bad lyrics are better than the brief dialogue sections written by Mr. Armstrong and Michael Mayer, the production’s director. Neither Mr. Armstrong nor Mr. Mayer should quit their day jobs.

8.  Michael Mayer’s staging, on the other hand, is so stunningly good that it almost made me forgive him for the horror that was Thoroughly Mechanical Millie. But only almost.

9.  Almost equal credit for this should go to Christine Jones, Andrea Lauer, Kevin Adams, and Darrel Maloney – respectively, the set, costume, lighting and video/projection designers. They’ve created a deceptively simple, sharply witty physical production that provides, particularly in its very clever use of video, a great deal of the bite that’s lacking from Armstrong’s generically disaffected lyrics. This show is a visual knockout in ways you won’t expect.

10. The onstage band is terrific, and so are Tom Kitt’s orchestrations and vocal arrangements. 21 Guns, in particular, is quite stunning.

11. The entirely American cast are entirely superb – sang, danced, acted magnificently well, and their energy was astonishing. They’re young, they’re great, they’re worth the cost of a ticket in themselves, even though you’ve probably never heard of any of them, and they all deserve every success.

12. The finale, in which the entire cast line up across the stage, playing acoustic guitars, to sing Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life), is ridiculously charming, and the show’s musical highlight.

13. These UK tour dates add an intermission to the show (which was a one-act on Broadway), basically to let the punters go to the bar, which should tell you everything you need to know about how committed Work Light Productions and the Ambassador Theatre Group are to maintaining the integrity of the shows they present. Shoehorning in an intermission did not help the show, which would have played better as a 95-minute one-act.

14. Two of the three plot strands don’t really work very well – the drugs plotline has been seen before in about a thousand movies-of-the-week on the True Movies channel, and the idea of an addict having a glamorous alter ego who tempts him to get high is neither particularly original nor particularly interesting, despite an absolutely compelling performance from Trent Saunders as the alter ego in question. Yes, we get it. Doing smack a lot really fucks you up. That’s pretty much all the show has to say on the subject, and it’s not enough.

15. The army subplot is far better executed, thanks at least partly to stunning video projections and choreography. The Extraordinary Girl/Before the Lobotomy sequence, in particular, is jaw-dropping – with no thanks to the lyrics, which (again) are thuddingly bathetic.

16. When it was revealed that the young soldier had had his leg amputated below the knee, one of the mouthy women sitting behind me burst out laughing. Laughing at that particular moment, obviously, more or less has to make her stupid on a level that calls Darwin into question, but the fact that she had that particular response at that particular point in the show suggests that the production had not quite succeeded in providing an emotionally gripping narrative to go with the loud music and thrilling visuals.

17. And that’s an understatement. Mayer et al present the show’s three plot strands with exceptional clarity, but the terrible lyrics and (occasional) terrible dialogue mean that we very rarely feel much emotional engagement with the characters onstage. The show is often exciting, but it’s also never moving.

18. It’s very sweary, too, and not particularly suitable for younger children – something which hadn’t quite filtered through to some parents in the audience, who’d brought children considerably younger than ten to see a show that contains all manner of sex, drug use and violence, both stylised and not. I don’t have a problem with any of this content – but I’m forty, and I would not take a nine-year-old to see this.

19. The flying sequences are superb.

20. In the end, it’s probably best to approach the show as a kind of balletic collage set to the music of Green Day, rather than a rock musical. The show’s visual presentation is frequently extraordinary, and the video projections and choreography, in particular, have a grim wit that’s almost entirely lacking in the lyrics. In some ways, American Idiot is an absolute triumph, but the text, in places, is very, very underpowered indeed, despite some excellent music. You’ll get a dazzling show – more or less literally in a couple of places, depending on where you’re sitting – and it’s certainly well worth seeing, but you won’t get much in the way of emotional engagement. There’s a reason it only lasted a little over a year on Broadway while a number of other rock musicals with lesser music (leaving the lyrics entirely out of the equation) have run longer: thrilling visuals and choreography aren’t enough to make up for trite lyrics and a clichéd plot, even with a winning cast. This is as strong a physical production of a musical as I’ve ever seen – but unfortunately, along the way, Mr. Mayer and Mr. Armstrong forgot to write a show to go with it.

Can’t spell? Go and work for Waterstones!

Here, for your reading pleasure, is a selection of the staff recommendation cards on display on bookshelves in Waterstones in the Manchester Arndale shopping centre:

Psycodelic?!

Oops, we lost an N.

They had a pile of spare hyphens in the stockroom, and they had to use them somewhere…

…and that letter E just refuses to behave itself.

See? There’s an evil extra letter E lurking in the store that’s clearly determined to insert itself into as many cards as possible.

Finally, here’s the apostrophe that the company removed from their corporate name at the beginning of this year. Obviously, it refuses to go away.

I was with a friend; we were in there for about fifteen minutes, we certainly didn’t go into the shop intending to poke fun at their signs, and without really looking we found about ten cards containing horrible spelling mistakes. Since we only browsed through a fairly small section of the store, it’s almost certainly fair to assume that there are more. Presumably the branch’s management approves these materials; if head office aren’t embarrassed, they should be. This is sub-GCSE English, and to allow this kind of weapons-grade illiteracy to be part of a merchandising display at all, never mind in a bookshop, is inexcusable.

It’s also, to be fair, not at all what I expect from Waterstones. In other branches, the standard of English on display on these cards is usually impeccable. This, however, is sloppy, lazy, and thoroughly unprofessional.