Bat Out of Hell (Dominion Theatre, London)
Some shows are good, some are bad, and some are bonkers, defying all description or criticism.
This poses problems for any reviewer, and Bat Out of Hell, which has taken up home at the Dominion after a run at the Coliseum last year, is undisputedly in the latter category: it consists of a weak and baffling story, uninspiring trite choreography, and is loud, brash, repetitive and average at best – but most audiences will love every overblown minute.
The Jim Steinman musical, featuring the songs from the three Bat Out of Hell albums by Meatloaf, plus some newer material, is an assault on the senses. Given the pedigree, you might expect nothing else. There’s fire, there’s explosions, there’s video projection, there are even red-eyed bats flying above the stalls in this crazy larger than life rock and roll and operatic show, which makes an earlier Dominion hit – the Queen musical We Will Rock You – look like afternoon tea in the garden with Miss Prism. It starts loud and gets louder, it begins daft and becomes plain ridiculous, it comes in like a lion and goes out with a wham.
At one point musicians stomp out wielding battered instruments after a car crashes into the orchestra pit, a potentially symbolic comment on the production (perhaps it should have been a juggernaut), but this is never a musical that – in the words of one of the songs – is “All Revved Up With No Place to Go.” Rather, it revs itself up to thunderous intensity and doesn’t really care where it ends up. And of course it doesn’t matter one jot; nobody going to see a show based on Meatloaf songs would expect to find Mamma Mia.
The pretentious spectacle is all played out on Jon Bausor’s gobsmacking set, a contemporary Neverland of nightmare proportions, a cavernous post-apocalyptic Manhattan that bleeds into the auditorium. Irritating (yet strangely hypnotic) live video feeds provide in your face close ups of some of the action, confetti cannons regularly blast their contents into the audience, while the large ensemble is forced to dance like the Young Generation on a TV seaside special thanks to Emma Portner’s uninteresting choreography, surely cribbed from an 80s exercise video.
It’s appropriate that the show should open two days after National Bat Day as any naturalist would all too soon spot the bats in the belfry of the creators. Jaws will drop in awesome wonder or bewildered horror, yet somehow you suspect this will quickly gain a cult following and will have audiences on their feet screaming for more at every performance.
What plot there is stems from an early Jim Steinman musical based on Peter Pan. In a dystopian future (think Dark Knight Gotham City where the Suicide Squad have teamed up with Mad Max) a rebellious teenager who never gets older falls in love with the disaffected daughter of a monstrous and amoral Overlord and whisks her off to a life with his underground gang of genetic mutants, “The Lost,” youngsters whose DNA is frozen at 18-years-old after the chemical wars.
Every excuse is taken to belt out the hits, none of them subtly. “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” becomes an exchange of wedding vows; “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” is a love song for two youngsters growing up in an uncertain world; “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” is a sexy and outrageous lament for lost and wasted love by the heroine’s parents; “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is, of course, the crashing fever-pitch finale.
The performances are necessarily OTT – understated will never sell a Steinman number – though characterisation suffers at the hands of the bombast. Looking like a young Iggy Pop, Andrew Polec’s wiry frame belies a powerful set of lungs of which Meat Loaf would be proud as the hero Strat, a wild-eyed Peter Pan for a tortured , angst-ridden Twilight generation. The object of his affections is the petulant Raven (Christina Bennington, managing to avoid stroppy sterotype), more of a rock chick than Wendy Darling.
Stronger performances come from a tasty Rob Fowler as the evil Falco and Sharon Sexton as Sloane, Raven’s parents, a couple whose marriage is on the brink, but who explore their failing relationship with some intimate and powerful showstoppers.
Danielle Steers is constantly scene-stealing as Zahara, an outlaw nanny who is just about every rock goddess morphed into one, with punchy vocals raising the roof, and she is well-matched by Wayne Robinson as Jagwire. Alex Thomas-Smith is cute but is no fairy as the jealous Tink. Giovanni Spano is great as Ledoux, giving a passionate rendition of Objects In The Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are.
Michael Reed’s musical supervision and textured arrangements give dramatic structure and colourful depth to what would otherwise just be an ear-blasting rock concert and there are terrific performances from the band directed by Robert Emery at the keyboards. Jay Scheib’s SFX-laden direction pulls every trick out of the bag, ratcheting up the energy, the sound and the visuals whenever the mood is in danger of slipping below the rock gig norm of 120 decibels and theatre are plenty of knowing winks to the audience in case anyone decides to take things too seriously.
Bat Out of Hell is mostly terrible, cringeworthy and unfathomable. It’s mad, bad and spectacular. Critics will loathe it with a vengeance and stagger out with migraines, while audiences will be hooked and hail it a monster cult success. It’s a two star behemoth that deserves five stars for swaggering extravagance.
Frankly, give me the charms of this year’s off-West End delights Pippin and Eugenius! and I’ll happily allow the audience at whom Bat is aimed to salivate and prove the West End’s infinite variety.
A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/