The popularity of juke box musicals clearly isn’t going to wane any time soon.
In the same week that critics were pretty much universal in their praise of a show telling the life story of Tina Turner, this bonkers and strangely irresistible show featuring the music of Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf returns to London after a short run at the London Coliseum, home of the revered English National Opera — not such an odd fit when you consider the theatrical nature of Steinman’s brand of rock.
“Bat” (as it’s affectionately known by a growing fan base) eschews biography and instead hangs Meat Loaf’s back catalogue on an original story. Well, I say original, but the plot is as thin as a Rizla. If you’re looking for nuance, you’re in the wrong place. I can’t decide if some of the dialogue is written with tongue firmly in cheek or is just toe-curlingly embarrassing.
In a dystopian future, Manhattan — now renamed Obsidian — has become a desolate wasteland lorded over by ruthless dictator and businessman Falco (Rob Fowler) from his Trump-like tower, with his will enforced by a violent riot squad.
Down among the detritus of the city live “The Lost”, a group of kids whose DNA is permanently frozen at 18-years-old following the “chemical wars”, and who are a thorn in the side of Falco Industries’ plans to develop the city. Among The Lost is the tormented Strat (Andrew Polec), who is in love with Falco’s daughter Raven (Christina Bennington), who herself is just about to turn 18 but destined, unlike Strat, to carry on ageing.
It’s a tale of unrequited love between kids from different sides of the track, with a parent determined to keep them apart. That’s pretty much it story-wise.
This show is totally about the music and the spectacular way in which the songs are staged. Jim Steinman’s work lends itself perfectly to a theatrical setting and apparently Bat Out of Hell was always intended to be a stage musical, until objections by the J M Barrie estate about the Peter Pan element of the story forced him to shelve that idea and make do with a multi-million-selling album instead.
All the songs from that album are here, plus a few additions, presented in all their compelling, overblown glory. Big songs demand big voices and this show boasts some stunning vocal performances.
Polec and Bennington convey the right amount of teenage and love-torn angst, with nice moments of tenderness, while there are impressive turns from Fowler and Sharon Sexton as his wife Sloan in a subplot about their own frictional relationship.
But from a faultless ensemble, Danielle Steers as Zahara and Giovanni Spano as Ledoux steal the show from under the noses of the leads, with vocals of controlled power and intense emotion.
Director Jay Scheib throws every theatrical trick into the mix, with staging that is a constant and thrilling assault on the senses. He’s aided by Jon Bausor’s excellent set, Finn Ross’ clever video design and Emma Portner’s choreography.
Bat Out of Hell: the Musical makes no bones about what it wants to be: a spectacular two hours of escapism. By staying just the right side of pretentious, and with a nod and wink to the audience and excellent performances, it pulls it off triumphantly.
In 2002, We Will Rock You — a musical based on the work of Queen — opened at the same theatre and defied a right royal duffing up by the critics to reign for 14 years. Although only currently booking until October, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bat repeated the feat.