Bat Out of Hell, London Coliseum
Seeing Bat Out of Hell the musical is not something you forget quickly. The tunes have been earworming their way around me ever since the opening night. The songs of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman have always been difficult to define. Not really heavy metal and not really soft rock either. But if you were alive during the 1970s or the 1990s they were very hard to avoid.
This stage musical is just as difficult to define. It’s definitely not a ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Jersey Boys’ adapting the story of the artist. It’s not a breezy ‘Mamma Mia’ either, which makes you think it’s closest stage relative is ‘We Will Rock You’.
That Queen behemoth ran for years at the Dominion, and was beloved by fans of the music almost as much as it was hated by fans of musicals. Bat Out of Hell won’t match that long run, partly because the English National Opera will need the Colisseum stage back to perform their, all too often, unloved operas. But BOOH may divide opinions as much as WWRY did amongst the musical theatre brigade.
It’s not a simple tale. An early sign of this is that you get a newspaper on your seat explaining some of the backstory. Here’s my attempt at a summary. It’s something about an apocalyptic future with a hint of Peter Pan thrown in. There’s a cartoon baddie who is a bit like Trump (but far less ugly), who lives in a Tower (where the letters are the same font as Trump Tower in case you missed the link) and who has a wife who hates him most of the time (hello Melania). His daughter (I’d say more of a Tiffany Trump than an Ivanka) is locked away in the Tower and she is the love interest of the young hero who seems to be some sort of resistance leader (but not as sassy as Maxine Waters). There’s also a bit about not being able to get any older and a city burning because of the baddie.
If you go to the theatre because you like a coherent story, you may end up going to the box office to say ‘Life is a Lemon and I want my money back’. It seems that Jim Steinman once did a lot of work on a Peter Pan musical, which, unlike Peter Pan, never really got to fly. So a lot of those ideas ended up in this production. It’s an odd choice, in some ways, as the music of Meat Loaf tells many stories in itself. This could easily have been set in 1950s America with teenagers finding first love, driving motorbikes and playing loud guitars. It would probably have worked better to root the stage musical in the era evoked by the music, and the dialogue would surely have been better too.
However, if you go to the theatre for more than just the story, there’s a lot to be said for this show. The staging is, without doubt, spectacular. The Colisseum stage is almost too big for it all, so there’s an unusual use of video to help fill the space. There’s fire and cars and bikes and a bit where some of the orchestra climb out and become cast members. There’s always something to look at on stage.
The actors, are, I think it’s fair to say, very, very good singers. Instead of giving all the Meat Loaf vocals to one singer they are spread around quite widely and I don’t think there’s a bad voice amongst them. Andrew Polec, in particular, is outstanding in the lead role. Not a longstanding West End or Broadway pro, he wouldn’t look, or sound, out of place as the front man in a rock band. The orchestra are exceptional, taking the rich Steinman production of the old records and giving it an energy and nobility that a band alone couldn’t do.
And then there’s the songs. Those songs. Of course, there’s plenty of haters out there for Meat Loaf and Steinman. But if you’ve ever driven in a car late at night and needed something loud to keep you awake, there’s few things that compare to a bit of Meat. And if those are the songs that you’ve listened to for years then you will be swept along seeing them live. It’s not hard to guess which songs close the first act and bring the show to an end, and what endings they are. Absolute scenes in the audience, and a reaction from the stalls that the English National Opera would give a lot of their £12.38m annual subsidy to experience.
If the rumours are true of a long term West End transfer then that could be to the benefit of the show. A slightly more intimate production and a more polished story could be just what it needs. But if summer 2017 at the Colisseum is the only chance you ever get to see the show then take the chance. It’s a Rock and Roll Dream Come Through…