Bat Out of Hell at the London Coliseum – review round-up
Meat Loaf has had one hell of a shelf life. Initially a barbarised Peter Pan musical project, then an operatic prog-rock album no record company would touch, then one of the best-selling releases of all time, the singer’s classic 1977 release Bat Out of Hell – written with composer Jim Steinman – has finally earned itself the ultimate accolade: a West End musical.
And a West End musical at the London Coliseum, no less. The august home of the English National Opera, more used to Mozart than Meat Loaf, is playing host to Bat Out of Hell, with its shredding guitar riffs and gothic rock’n’roll chic, until August 22. ENO will return to what’s left of the Coliseum with Verdi’s Aida in September.
The musical, with book, music and lyrics by Steinman, works in hits from all three Bat Out of Hell albums – the original had sequels in 1993 and 2006 – from Paradise by the Dashboard Light to I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That). Jay Scheib’s production, which previewed in Manchester earlier this year, stars Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington as a pair of star-crossed lovers in a deeply dystopian Manhattan.
But do the critics make the most of their one night together with Steinman’s jukebox musical? Does Meat Loaf’s uniquely rip-roaring rock’n’roll hit the West End like a battering ram? And when the day is done, and the sun goes down, and the moon is shining through, is it really any good at all?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Bat Out Of Hell – Brilliantly awful
The story of Steinman’s musical revolves around Polec’s Strat – a Harley Davidson-riding, eternally topless rebel, doomed to remain 18 forever – and his all-consuming, ragingly hormonal desire for Bennington’s Raven, the daughter of this futuristic city’s sinister overlord Falco. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who thinks that sounds mad.
“If it all sounds a bit silly, well it is,” admits Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★), with Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) calling it “a preposterous, lumbering behemoth of a show” and Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★) labelling it “three parts Peter Pan, one part Romeo and Juliet, plus a generous pinch of Escape to New York”.
According to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), Steinman’s book is “thin” and “likely to mystify”, but for Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★) it’s “cliched and peripheral” and Lukowski says it’s just “half-arsed”.
But most recognise that a paucity of plausible plotting really isn’t much of an issue with a Meat Loaf musical. “The best musicals have a compelling storyline, thrilling stage pictures and astonishing sounds,” opines Mark Lawson (Guardian, ★★★★). “This show completely lacks the first, but what swagger and songs it has.”
“The essential appeal is to our inner arrested adolescent,” asserts Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★). “Never mind the crude narrative segues into (often barely comprehensible) song, what matters is the over-riding libidinal mood, with Andrew Polec’s tousled Strat awakening carnal desire in Christina Bennington’s gothy Raven with his bare chest, impish looks and pelvic thrusts while the music goes hell-for-leather with its revving anticipation, orgiastic frenzies and electric-guitar climaxes.”
“The story embodies everything Steinman’s 1970s and 1980s mad, slightly camp rock music did with not a hint of shame,” echoes Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’s On Stage, ★★★★). “Everything that made Meat Loaf awful but also really great is wholeheartedly here, from the love-wracked crooning, the light-goth look, the rock, the roll to the uber sex appeal.”
Bat Out Of Hell – Everything Rocks, Everything Rolls
Wagnerian Rock – that was the genre that Steinman styled Bat Out Of Hell’s full-on, Teutonic, wall-of-sound wailing as. Chucking together belting vocals and an operatic backing of furious piano, thundering drums and screaming electric guitar, Meat Loaf’s music redefined rock and made it possible for 1980s artists such as Bon Jovi and Van Halen to succeed. How does it fare on stage, forty years on?
It doesn’t escape some critics’ notice that many of the tracks have an in-built theatricality already. “With their elaborate narratives and roaring choruses, the numbers always sounded as if they hoped to come home to the stage,” remarks Lawson, and Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★★) concurs, noting that “they were already storytelling songs, all soul and muscle and poetry and the innocent violence of teenage yearning.”
And most think Steinman’s songs transfer from stereo to stage well, making up for the book’s deficiencies. They are “never less than bombastic” according to Hitchings, “mindblasting” according to Bowie-Sell, and “epic” according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★).
Although the non-musical sequences fall flat, says Adam Sweeting (The Arts Desk, ★★★★), “you’re never more than about four minutes away from another giga-ballad or monstrous rocker, and the music is huge and confident enough to carry the story”.
Not all are quite as enthusiastic, some taking objection to the tunes themselves. “Steinman’s quasi-operatic ballads have their moments, and at best they’re a histrionic joy”, writes Lukowski. “At worst they kind of sound like your local Dungeons and Dragons club trying to write a Springsteen song.”
And some are unable to stand the sheer volume of them in Scheib’s production. “From the very first bone-jolting chord – which made me spill my beer – this show is screamingly overdone,” opines Letts. “There are guitar riffs as noisy as a jumbo jet landing next to you.”
Bat Out Of Hell – Sirens screaming, fires howling
The plot is silly, then, and the music loud. But what does Scheib’s production look like? And do Polec and Bennington have the singing chops to chow down on Meat Loaf’s uber-ballads?
Jon Bausor’s design is as spectacular as Steinman’s songs, most agree. It’s “a mix of swanky grandiosity, deranged fantasy and whimsical surprises” according to Hitchings, and a “visually ravishing”, “multilayered” mash-up of “video projections, plummeting cars and surprising water features” according to Anna Deck (The Upcoming, ★★★★★).
For Shaun Kitchener (Express, ★★★★★), it’s simply “packed with visual treats”, and for Lukowski, it’s just “batshit mental, often in a good way”.
“Everything is in lurid colours, but smeared in post-apocalyptic grime, like a comic book come to life,” explains Bano. “Although set in the future, in many ways this feels old-fashioned, like a huge 1980s arena gig, intensified by Patrick Woodroffe’s blazing lighting.”
It’s only Emma Portner’s choreography – damned as “ungainly” by Hitchings, “badly balletic” by Bano, and “clumsily placed” by Bowie-Sell – that comes in for sustained criticism.
Most critics are blown by Polec’s set of pipes, though; his singing is “immense” according to Bano, and “meaty” according to Deck. Acting-wise, his enthusiasm is received rapturously by some – “he is like a bat out of hell,” says Treneman, while Lukowski lauds a “genuinely excellent” performance – and with a frown of disapproval by others – Letts reckons all the acting is “beyond bad”.
There’s praise for Bennington, too. She is “enchanting” for Purves, “spirited” for Lukowski, and “gutsy” for Treneman.
“The two of them blast these songs to the rafters,” writes Bowie-Sell. “It’s hard to keep your eyes off them. Bennington and Polec were made to rock and roll together and the chemistry between them is flame inducing.”
Bat Out Of Hell – Is it any good?
Good is probably too small a word for a show like this. The critics instead go for “preposterous”, “astonishing”, “jaw-dropping”, and “ridiculous”. It’s fair to say Bat Out of Hell, with its epic score of Wagnerian rock and its deliriously dystopian staging, isn’t exactly your typical West End fare, nor your typical ENO Coliseum show.
A general consensus around the four-star mark – with a few fives and a few threes – points to an extravaganza that – against the odds, perhaps – manages to win the critics over, though. Two out of three ain’t bad, Meat Loaf, but four out of five is better.