Bat Out of Hell continues at the London Coliseum until 22 August.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
In what has to be one of the crazier pairings in the history of musical theatre, the London Coliseum, home of the English National Opera, plays host to Jim Steinman’s dystopian rock opera Bat Out of Hell.
And it’s truly the most intense, technicolour thrill-ride that you’ll ever experience at the Coli, indulging you with deafening music, dazzling light shows, spectacular sets, unrivalled performances and a totally bonkers storyline.
There aren’t enough adjectives to describe this tour de force – it wows you with every trick in the book and is so OTT that you can’t help but admire it.
Steinman’s book, music and lyrics, inspired by Peter Pan and reconceived in 1977 as the Meat Loaf album of the same name, tell the story of a crumbling post-apocalyptic Manhattan, now named Obsidian.
The plot is centred on Strat (Andrew Polec), a gang member who, through some weird quirk of fate/storytelling, remains forever a teenager. (You might want to read the free newspaper that’s provided on each seat to give you some clue as to what’s going on!)
Strat falls in love with Raven (Christina Bennington), the 18-year-old daughter of Obsidian’s tyrannical Trump-like dictator Falco (Rob Fowler) and his embittered wife Sloane (Sharon Sexton). As you’d expect, it’s a star-cross’d affair, as Falco vows to rescue Raven and kill Strat, all the while trying to resolve his own marital discord with Sloane.
So far, so predictable. But I can safely say that Bat Out of Hell is anything but predictable, and by the end of Act I it was already my theatrical highlight of the year… and I’m not even a Meat Loaf fan.
Director Jay Scheib – an acclaimed interpreter of opera who’s not shy of new technology to retell old stories – has summoned up a diabolically ambitious production that takes your breath away with its inventiveness and excess.
Creatively, it reminded me of the recent Mad Max movie reboot with Tom Hardy – completely over the top and bursting with inventiveness. Musically, it touches on the likes of The Rocky Horror Show, Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, American Idiot and We Will Rock You.
It’s a bold, brash and deafeningly loud concept album brought vividly to life on stage, blowing the roof off the Coli and sending shockwaves through the 2,300-seat house.
The cast is without a weak link. Polec, making his UK debut, is a phenomenon as Strat. This wiry young deadringer for Roger Daltrey has an unfailing voice and boundless energy and is surely a star in waiting.
Bennington proves herself more than worthy as his match, with a soaring sound and commanding stage presence.
Yet upstaging both is Fowler and Sexton as the evil Falco and wife Sloane: both steal the show at every opportunity. How this foursome keep their voices all week is beyond me (although Ben Purkiss is credited as a Strat cover, giving Polec some chance of saving his vocal cords!).
Providing a third pair of snakebitten lovers – and ensuring that every Steinman love song is given an airing – is Danielle Steers and Dom Hartley-Harris as Zahara and Jagwire.
This is the lucky pair who get to knock out ‘Dead Ringer for Love’, and boy do they do it justice. A good few of the remaining cast of 26 – yup, it’s a big cast – get a chance to shine, with some numbers allowing for solo contributions, and all do a great job.
Musical supervisor Michael Reed and orchestrator Steve Sidwell give MD Robert Emery and his 12-piece band an epic score to play with, and the sound is incredible. Gareth Owen must be acknowledged for the clarity of the sound design, despite the ear-splitting volume.
Also cranked up to 11 is Jon Bausor’s set design, which delivers nearly non-stop coups de théâtre all night.
Combined with Patrick Woodroffe’s gorgeous lighting design and video designer Finn Ross’ constant live filmed projections – how very fitting for our 24-hour media-obsessed times – Bat is as much a visual treat as it is an aural one. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that this show has it all: exploding motorcycles, crashing cars, transforming dinner tables, flying bats, caves, skyscrapers, ponds… it’s overwhelming.
Finally, the music. As you’d expect, it’s all way too much: a rollercoaster of emotions, dynamics and epicness. But I loved every minute, despite never having considered myself much of a fan of rock music.
The songs, all but two of which were repackaged by Steinman from previous Meat Loaf albums, are like a series of over-long one act plays, but they’re so well performed and staged that you just can’t get enough.
One has to endure some of the less-than-perfectly-formed dialogue between the musical numbers, but the book is still way more bearable than Ben Elton’s nonsense for We Will Rock You.
All in all, Bat Out of Hell is an explosive, thrilling triumph that grabs musical theatre by the flared collar and gives it one hell of a shake. If you like your theatre loud and in your face, you’ll love this.
I for one hope it has life beyond the Coli and its Toronto transfer in October. It’s not the cheapest show in town, but despite this I will do anything to see it again…
Tickets for Bat Out of Hell at the London Coliseum are available HERE.