There’s probably a fair argument to be made for playing it ‘safe’ in the current, perilous and unforgiving climate for theatre-making. As a new week ushers in yet more gutter punch announcements of productions laid waste to by Omicron and friends (not to mention a torturous insouciance from Camp DCMS), with Sell A Door’s upcoming run of Bring It On the latest of the fallen, there’s a palpable tension and collective holding of breath coursing its way through the entire industry. For those of us far luckier to sit on the sidelines in comparative comfort watching on, it feels almost tone-deaf to prattle on about originality and invention, but it’s genuinely troubling to ruminate over whether these ‘lost years’ will stifle not just opportunity and potentially rob us of the next Menzels or Mirandas, but indeed creativity and invention as a whole, particularly at a time when musical theatre had finally scratched and clawed its way back into the zeitgeist.
Without wanting to tempt the fates – or pave the way for irony to napalm a great show where it hurts – thank heavens (or the other place) then, for the likes of Bat Out Of Hell, currently bombarding Birmingham with enough vim, spark, rock and roll to temporarily banish those ‘New Year, New Variant’ blues right off the ‘deep end’.
“A visceral, loud, brilliant (in every sense) thing of grungy, neon, punk extravagance.”
No umbrage with either of those staples, naturally, but Bat Out Of Hell quite literally sets the stage aflame with its rousing, uncompromising exploration of what musical theatre – and particularly a touring production – can offer. It’s a visceral, loud, brilliant (in every sense of the word) thing of grungy, neon, punk extravagance, and by some measure one of the most arresting new shows of the past decade or so.
A fiery riff on – of all things for the music of Jim Steinman and Meatloaf – J.M. Barrie, Hell drops the audience into a dystopian, post-cataclysmic New York, where its ‘Lost Boys’ proxies are also young forever; only here remaining trapped so thanks to vaguely painted notions of ‘frozen’ DNA, mutations, earthquakes and other pseudo-sci-fi trappings. Led by their own Peter Pan, ‘Strat’ (Glenn Adamson in a colossus of a leading turn), they oppose capitalist dictator, and the show’s Captain Hook stand-in, ‘Falco’ (Rob Fowler). Sprinkle some star-crossed lover energy between Strat and Falco’s daughter Raven (Martha Kirby), some fairly obvious allegory of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, and you’ve pretty much got Hell’s story down pat. Heck, it even has its own Tinkerbell – Killian Thomas Lefevre’s ‘Tink’ – complete with late-game deal with the devil born of envy and potentially unrequited love.
If it’s a story admittedly stacked with familiar beats, and one whose trajectory is mostly predictable from the outset, then at least director Jay Scheib and the creative team know exactly how to infuse it all with as much raucous energy and vision as you could wish for.
“There’s little overstating it – Bat Out Of Hell is one of the most gorgeous, vibrantly and innovatively realised productions you will see in any theatre.”
There’s little overstating it – Bat Out Of Hell is one of the most gorgeous, vibrantly and innovatively realised productions you will see in any theatre. Enormous projections played out against one-sided glass that itself frames a set-within-the-stage. Live, on-stage video recording that sees a camera operator cinematically capturing moments of intensity and immediacy, which are simultaneously broadcast out to audiences, almost outdoor-cinema style. Torrents of flames and multiple explosions of colour and confetti erupt out to meet the blaring notes of such classics as ‘Paradise By the Dashboard Light’ or ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’. Stooge stagehands stomp across the boards in faux anger at a prop stunt ‘gone wrong’ in some meta breaking of the fourth wall. Vast strip lighting and stage design cleverly play with perspective to create a towering sense of enormity, height and place, whilst transportive, evocative lighting craft unique and distinctive feels to each exchange and sequence.
It’s decadent, sumptuous and audacious stuff – suitably bombastic and brilliant, again, only fitting given the catalogue of hits that it houses.
Rising to meet the challenge set by the audio-visual fireworks, a tremendous key cast and ensemble confidently meet fire with fire, to an extent where it isn’t difficult to wish that some of the bit parts – such as Kellie Gnauck’s ‘Valkyrie’ or Danny Whelan’s ‘Ledoux’ – were afforded a little more narrative meat to go on their superb rock ’n roll bones. Joelle Moses radiates presence and commanding vocals in the supporting role of ‘Zahara’, whilst Killian Thomas Lefevre gets arguably the biggest journey of them all as the conflicted ‘Tink’, and charts the course beautifully.
It’s predominately a four-way affair, though, with the villainous Falco pitched squarely in the ‘love to hate’ category by way of Rob Fowler’s superbly comedic, no holds-barred turn, and an equally brilliant co-star in the form of his sardonic wife Sloane (Sharon Sexton), who has long since given up on the sparks of marriage in favour of the sparkles of perhaps one too many glasses of fizz, and the throngs of passion for the thongs of… well, you’ll see. Regular pairing Sexton and Fowler light up the stage with an innate chemistry and likability, and again, where Hell could’ve tiptoed delicately around the tropes, it instead takes its parental figures on an unabashed romp through reflection, regret and potential reconciliation. If it isn’t already clear from its opening numbers, the duo’s barnstorming take on ‘Dashboard Light’ early on etches in stone that this is not your everyday, paint-by-numbers musical theatre offering.
Kirby and Adamson, meanwhile, engage in a sizzling, frequently show stopping game of self oneupmanship, continually raising the bar – and dropping the audiences’ jaws – in terms of vocals, performance and energy. No mean feat considering some of the major asks of them when going for those higher Steinman notes. In what must surely be a star-making turn, Adamson positively oozes rock star essence and physicality, writhing and contorting himself across stage as he belts out each number even more impressively than the last. Like much about him, Adamson is bold, bombastic and utterly brilliant.
“In what must surely be a star-making turn, Adamson positively oozes rock star essence and physicality.”
Inevitably, it’s not all perfect. Whilst you’ll likely get further mileage from Bat Out Of Hell the more familiar you are with its roster of rock classics (something that perhaps goes without saying, given the jukebox genre), even those appreciative of its awesome track-list will likely feel the show begin to tread water midway through Act II, as what limited story there is grinds to halt for a succession of musical navel gazing. Sure, it’s amongst the best music you could wish to be caught listening to amidst a narrative lull, but given the pulpy, non-stop pacing of the first half, it’s hard not to feel the Harley is revving its engines but spinning its wheels, and just as the ride was really getting going.
Contrarily, the one real pitfall of the jolty, kinetic Act I is that some of Hell’s pivotal world-building and contextualising gets rushed through, and can easily be confusing or even overlooked altogether.
Minor bumps in the road, though, and ones that this particular scrambler has little trouble overcoming. Sure, some may argue we’ve a case of style drowning out substance, that the phenomenal design, audiovisual work and performances merely distract from a fairly anaemic plot, but that’s rock and roll, folks. Much like Meatloaf’s finest, Bat Out Of Hell may not do or say anything particularly original, new or groundbreaking, but it does so in absolutely the most epic and glorious fashion possible.
If perhaps not quite a five-star show at its frozen DNA roots then, it is, undeniably, a five-star experience executed dazzlingly by five-star talent.
And, in a world of pandemics, mass closures and theatrical catastrophes aplenty, two out of three certainly ain’t bad.
Like the man himself, ‘Bat’ may tread familiar ground (several times over), but it tears up the rulebook, screams out a song and sets fire to the stage as it does so. Raucous, gorgeous and utterly original; the ultimate New Year tonic.