For Meat Loaf fans, the stage production of Bat Out of Hell (written as a musical but more famous as the classic albums) has been a long time coming. After an initial run in Manchester, it’s come to London’s West End, where it has been extended due to phenomenal demand.
It’s 2100, and Manhattan has been renamed Obsidian. It’s under the dictatorship of Falco, who lives in his tower with wife Sloane and daughter Raven. Strat and ‘The Lost’ live beneath the city, constantly rebelling and forever 18 (except Tink, a younger member of the gang who is frozen at an unspecified age). Strat and Raven encounter each other on the night before her 18th birthday, falling instantly and obsessively in love. With Raven running away, The Lost being used by Falco to try and locate Strat, and Tink becoming jealous of his best friend’s new relationship, all we need is some kind of radioactive ticking crocodile to make it complete, right?
Because it basically is an attempt at a dystopian future Peter Pan, except he has a motorbike instead of the ability to fly. Granted, it doesn’t all play out completely predictably, but where it tries to be original is where it really loses its way. This show is another perfect example of how important the book is, and why you should entrust the writing to someone who knows what they’re doing. Jim Steinman may have written the songs and had the initial idea for the story, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have got someone to write the script for him.
It is some of the most cringeworthy dialogue I’ve ever heard in a theatre. Attempts at poignant moments have no depth (“We’re all so damaged” is hard not to laugh at), and the jokes are older than the music… The first act in particular had quite a misogynistic feel to it (not too surprisingly), as Steinman clearly has no idea how to write female characters – instead it feels like he was playing out a midlife crisis as he attempted to put the story together. As an audience member you need a tangible plot and someone to care about in that story; in Bat Out of Hell you’re given nothing except a pair of annoying brats as central characters.
Continuing from the misogyny in the writing is Jay Scheib’s direction. For some unknown reason, several of the men feel strangely compelled to go topless at random points in the show. Most likely a ploy to keep certain sections of the audience happy if they’d been dragged along by their partner, but also pathetic attempts to show male dominance.
Some odd choices have been made that I can’t quite understand. For all that they try to do to create this post-apocalyptic world, and invite us into it (‘local newspapers’ are available to pick up around the theatre), why would you have one of the characters push a car into the orchestra pit and then have people appear with broken instruments? Yes, it’s funny, but it just doesn’t seem to fit. I also fail to understand why they occasionally use handheld microphones (as in the musical Lizzie) when they all have radio mics attached – it seems to bear no relation to what’s going on, aside from one moment towards the end where I imagine it was a health & safety call.
Sections of the show (mostly scenes in Raven’s bedroom) are filmed and projected onto TV screens at the front of the stage, as well as larger parts of the set. This would be all well and good if a) we couldn’t see the person with the camera sticking out like a sore thumb, or b) we had the choice of watching the scenes play out onstage (the front wall of her room often gets brought down and obscures the view), as it is a piece of theatre after all.
The Coliseum has an enormous stage, and Jon Bausor’s set design does well to fill it and create a brand new world there. It is impressive, but at the same time it isn’t particularly original – instead, fitting the dystopian mould that seems to be quite typical: grey and drab. Both the set and costumes (Bausor and Meentje Nielsen) remind me of American Idiot, for one.
This is tempered by some superb lighting from Patrick Woodroffe (ignoring the stage level spotlights that reflect off the set and blind the audience), and excellent use of projections to create Falco’s rooms. The videos are not quite so effective at attempting to show Strat speeding away on his motorbike, however, as the actual thing moves at snail’s pace and the angles don’t work in its favour.
Emma Portner’s choreography, in the context of an overblown set, is completely out of place. It mostly consists of various types of arm-waving, and shows a real lack of ambition in terms of using the space and creating something special for these iconic songs. Strat and Raven spend an inordinate amount of time prowling or crawling around one another, which quickly gets tiresome given that the show’s songs are quite long. There is a real missed opportunity to include some contemporary, interpretive dance alongside more rock ‘n’ roll or jive moves.
It would be far better suited to being played out as a concert. This could still incorporate costumes, set and visuals, but simply omit the weak point: the script. A ridiculously talented cast has been put together, but making them utter those lines is doing them a great disservice – just focus on delivering the thrill of hearing some legendary rock songs live. There are far too many slow, mopey ballads (no matter how well performed); where the show excels is in its faster, rockier numbers, as well as the more well-known songs.
On the whole, the rather large cast do their best to try and deliver the script in a meaningful way, but there really is no saving this terrible book. Thankfully though, there are some truly incredible voices that make up this show; none more impressive than leading man Andrew Polec. On top of his extraordinary vocal stamina, he shows admirable commitment to the role – and could give Roger Daltrey a run for his money in the microphone swinging stakes! He is undoubtedly one to watch.
My verdict? A must for die-hard Meat Loaf fans, but not something for anyone who needs a proper story as well as songs – incredible performances aren’t enough to save a show this lacking in substance.
Bat Out of Hell runs at the Coliseum until 22 August 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.