Bat Out Of Hell is aesthetically dated and bizarre, but in good ways: inescapably a celebration of the musical excesses of the 1980s, this musical uses the improvements and refinements of stage craft in the last thirty years to offer full visual justice to the larger than life personalities of each of the numbers, and it could not be better sung, played or projected by a crack cast and creative team. Bat Out Of Hell will doubtless find many new audiences, and on this showing deserves to. What it serves up is of tested and enduring quality and the calibre of the production compensates for the structural weaknesses.
The London Coliseum is used to welcoming bats around Christmas time when Die Fledermaus puts in an appearance, but it has never experienced anything like the long-anticipated arrival of what might be the ultimate juke box musical, based on all three of the Bat albums put together by Jim Steinman, and incarnated so memorably by Meat Loaf.
All the most memorable numbers have been threaded together into a storyline that resembles Peter Pan superficially but is also very much indebted to the louche and lush aesthetic of We Will Rock You and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. What we have here is a self-conscious throwback to the romantic 1980s, a rock-and-roll musical from a pre-Rent world, something that was reflected as much in the age profile of the audience as in the show.
At the heart of it is the relationship between Strat (Andrew Polec) and Raven (Christina Bennington), and the attempts of Raven’s parents, Falco (Rob Fowler) and Sloane (Sharon Sexton) to keep them apart. The setting is a dystopian post-apocalyptic Manhattan in which Strat’s gang are confined to an underworld existence and never grow older than eighteen, and Raven inhabits a glitzy world of high-rise privilege with her squabbling and debauched parents, who are masters of all they survey. Aspiration, sexual awakening, betrayal, and defiance and resentment of authority in all its forms are much in evidence.
These are perennial themes of social and inter-generational conflict and they run well with the grain of a succession of peerless, defiant power ballads that are the core of Steinman’s catalogue. They are coupled here to a spectacular, flexible architectural set by Jon Bausor, and an extraordinary lighting design by Patrick Woodroffe that makes full use of all this theatre has to offer and breaks down the fourth wall with great skill.
When linked to the tight, imperious pit band coordinated by Robert Emery, and some exemplary lead voices the show produces one set-piece extravaganza after another that compels awe and admiration for the technical bravura and stamina of all concerned.
Polec and Bennington have golden voices for this repertoire, never showing any sense of strain amidst the most physical kind of acting you can imagine. But they are matched at every point by Fowler and Sexton, who are outstanding for their comic timing as well as their vocal panache and bold swagger around the stage. Fowler in particular, like the best of pantomime villains, threatened to steal the show in a way that reminds you of Alan Rickman’s famous turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
There is full fat singing from the chorus too, and especially Danielle Steers, as one of the few characters who crosses the social divide. The costumes are well styled to each individual and don’t get in the way of some truly acrobatic movement.
The evening is best approached from a distance and not with close inspection. If you stop to consider you then you might begin to think the whole show is totally bonkers, and you would notice the clunky, protracted dialogue, dodgy video projections, and very poor choreography where the dancers seem detached from the drama and occupying a space that is not truly balletic or in a rock groove.
The whole evening is, at nearly three hours, just too long, as if the structure were dictated by the need to include every famous song. The dramatic pace slackens when it cannot afford to, especially in the second half.
This musical also raises again the question of how you to manage to sustain a second half after the peak of the first act finale. There is no doubt that the high spot of the evening was the treatment of the title number which preceded the interval. In terms of vocal delivery by Polec, ensemble backing and spectacular effects, it rose from one peak to another until disintegration was the only way to go.
The audience was ecstatic and rightly so, but there remains the question of how and if you can return to that high at a later point. So many musicals suffer from emotionally deflated second halves and there is no easy remedy. Certainly, the creative team here perceived the problem, and pulled out all the stops; but they have yet to find the full repertoire of answers.
So how to assess this extraordinary confection? It is aesthetically dated and bizarre, but in good ways: inescapably a celebration of the musical excesses of the 1980s, this musical uses the improvements and refinements of stage craft in the last thirty years to offer full visual justice to the larger than life personalities of each of the numbers, and it could not be better sung, played or projected by a crack cast and creative team. Bat Out Of Hell will doubtless find many new audiences, and on this showing deserves to. What it serves up is of tested and enduring quality and the calibre of the production compensates for the structural weaknesses.
A couple of final thoughts. It is good to see the Coliseum totally sold out as it rarely is, sadly, for English National Opera. Once again this match of audience and event serves to emphasise that a theatre with over two thousand seats should really be the regular venue for London’s blockbuster musicals. ENO, without any sense of shame or defeat, should move to a smaller theatre which would represent a more plausible and attainable business model for them.
One final grumble: for no good reason security staff relieved all audience members on entry of their bottles of water without the theatre providing adequate water supplies at the bars in compensation. This was quite inexcusable on the hottest day of the year so far, and in a theatre too where the occasional unpredictable cooling waft is all that passes for air conditioning!