Thursday 8 June 2017

Theatre review: Bat out of Hell

Could I have picked a more appropriately-titled show to see on this election night than Bat out of Hell?

When Colin and Harriet Loaf’s eldest son Meat said he wanted to be a professional musician they were understandably concerned, but fortunately for him he met musical theatre writer Jim Steinman, who was writing a futuristic Peter Pan musical because of course he was. He ditched the musical, used the songs on the album Bat out of Hell instead, and Mr Meat C. Loaf* became the king of 1980s and ‘90s power ballads, The End. BUT NO IT WASN’T THE END, because thirty-odd years later Steinman remembered about the musical and decided to finish it, make it completely fucking mental, and bolt “I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)” onto the end whether it really made sense or not, because people would be expecting that one. AND THEN IT GOT BOOKED INTO THE COLISEUM FOR THE SUMMER TO REALLY CONFUSE THE SHIT OUT OF OPERA FANS AND PUT THE ICING ON THE CAKE. And lo, it could not take itself any less seriously if it tried, and it was duly declared shitmazing† by some bloke on an internet blog.

The year is 2100 in Manhattan, now known as Obsidian and ruled by corrupt dictator Falco (Rob Fowler,) who lives in a glass tower with his wife Sloane (Sharon Sexton) and teenage daughter Raven (Christina Bennington.)

Living in the sewers Strat (Andrew Polec) leads The Lost, a gang who have always been and forever will be 18 because they are mutants, please do not look into this explanation too closely. Tink (Aran MacRae) is a slightly different kind of mutant who is stuck at a younger age despite looking twice as old as the rest of them; exactly what age isn’t disclosed, possibly because of a scene where he and Strat almost gay it up, which would make it a bit creepy if he was too young. BUT! BUT! Strat is actually in love with Raven, whom he’s seen on posters in magazines. She has led an isolated life, barely allowed out of her room, and convinced she’s ugly, despite presumably having been asked to pose for the aforementioned magazines. Strat breaks in through her window, which I guess is several dozen floors lower than the rest of her father’s flat, because you can hear the wind howling around her parents’ bedroom but hers is easily climbable.

Helped by her maid Zahara (Danielle Steers,) who’s secretly in league with the Lost, Raven runs away with Strat, then goes back again, then runs away again, then her dad imprisons all of the Lost while the audience are looking elsewhere, look this clearly was never going to be about the tightness of its plot. Actually on the way into the theatre everyone got given a prop newspaper with background on the story, while before the show starts projections give captions setting the scene; so I wasn’t convinced the production was that confident in the story making any sense on its own. But in practice it’s so simple and so ridiculous you’d be hard pressed to miss any of its intricacies, it’s just a way of connecting various songs made popular by a Mr M. Loaf of Dallas, Texas.

This could have meant it became a simple showcase of the songs but the joy of Jay Scheib’s production is how it embraces the sheer daftness at every turn. The main acting instruction seems to have been to chew the scenery, with Sexton leaving the biggest bite marks by far – in the scenes where the characters are followed around by a camera broadcasting close-ups, she just about stops short of winking into the lens. Bennington’s pouty teenage goth is Elvira without the subtlety, and the script seems to forget for about half the show that Fowler’s meant to be the villain, so for the first act Falco is mainly an Embarrassing Dad (although he stops short of requesting that Amadeus rock him.) The male characters’ shirts keep falling off for the best and purest reason of all, i.e. literally no reason whatsoever.

Then there’s Emma Portner’s relentless, energetic, sometimes screamingly camp choreography OH GOD THE FLAPPY WRISTS FOR THE TITLE SONG, Jon Bausor’s set with its gaping chasm for a car to get rolled down onto the orchestra, and Meentje Nielsen’s OTT costumes (at least when the cast remember to wear them.) It all peaks with Falco and Sloane’s duet on “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” featuring the aforementioned car as well as the ensemble, both male and female, suddenly changing out of powdered wigs into bright yellow 1960s-style ladies’ swimsuits. It does get a real challenge for most memorable moment from the title song in the Act 1 closer, with motorcycles, flames bursting out of the stage, and enough confetti that it takes the crew the whole interval to hoover it up.

Having thrown the kitchen sink at that there isn’t quite as much madness left for the second act, which still has some of the better-known songs like “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” (Dom Hartley-Harris, Giovanni Spanó and Patrick Sullivan sharing the vocals as three of the Lost,) “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth,” and “Dead Ringer for Love” (a second duet for Steers and Hartley-Harris following the first act’s “Two Out of Three Ain't Bad,”) to get through, before everyone pitches in on two big finales with “It's All Coming Back to Me Now” and “I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That.)” Scheib misses a trick when he has dummies hanging upside-down from the ceiling in orange jumpsuits – they really should have been real so they could have joined in with the dancing for the whatthefuckery to reach its full potential. Still, there’s a great final gag in the last second of the show when the title suddenly gets taken very literally.

And as the list above shows there are a lot of good songs here, albeit leaning more towards the ballads, and Polec and Bennington have strong rock voices to belt them out in with total enthusiasm. Bat out of Hell manages to have its cake and eat it by enjoying itself both ironically and unironically, and can be enjoyed in the same way: Ian and I were alternately nodding along to the tunes and cackling at the latest bit of campery. Weekend performances are probably best avoided ‘cause I can imagine the hen night contingent being out in full force, but on a rainy Thursday night it was just the right level of silliness we could all use right now.

PS: Despite the baddie being a wealthy dictator who lives in a New York tower named after him, they don't do the obvious cheap Trump joke everyone else is doing. It truly is a miracle for our times.

Bat out of Hell by Jim Steinman is booking until the 5th of August at the London Coliseum; then from the 14th of October to the 3rd of December at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Specular.

*the C stands for Crusty

†as some people have been confused by the term, I'd like to clarify how I define shitmazing: it's not the same as "amazingly shit" or "so bad it's good:" A "so bad it's good" show would be aiming for good but actually land on bad; and then it would just keep piling on the bad until it became impossible to look away. Whereas a shitmazing show would actually be aiming for "so bad it's good," land correctly, and end up basically being good. I hope that clears things up for you.

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