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Mark Shenton: Are UK critics giving British musicals a fair hearing?

A scene from The Wind in the Willows at the London Palladium. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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In the past couple of weeks, two major new musicals have opened in London: Bat Out of Hell, the stage incarnation of Meat Loaf’s 1977 album, and a newly scored version of Kenneth Grahame’s famous novel The Wind in the Willows. One got a clear run of mostly four-star reviews; the other was pretty much panned. It wasn’t the way round I was expecting.

Though London critics never speak as one – there is no collusion among our ranks and you’ll always find a dissenting voice or two from the majority view – a certain healthy consensus usually emerges. Read as a whole, a fairly clear view of a show’s merits and problems invariably emerges.

But sometimes I wonder if British critics simply hold musicals to a different standard than other genres. Give them something familiar, such as an old Meat Loaf album from their childhoods transposed to the stage, and they’re immediately disposed to like it.

Let’s not forget that critics don’t want to be caught out fatally misjudging a show, as happened with the Queen jukebox show We Will Rock You. The Daily Telegraph famously dismissed it as “prole-feed at its worst” and the Daily Express predicted, “Only hardcore Queen fans can save it from an early bath”. And yet it ran for more than 12 years at the Dominion, so was clearly immune from critical disapproval.

The same is no doubt true of Bat Out of Hell, as Andzrej Lukowski honestly notes in his (three-star) Time Out review: “There is absolutely nothing I could possibly say here to dent its popularity… and it’s very hard to imagine that ticket-holding fans of Steinman and Meat Loaf’s Wagnerian rock will be arsed about the fact that it’s not exactly Hamlet in the plot department.” It also clearly delivers on the design front, as Lukowski notes: “As a spectacle, Bat Out of Hell is batshit crazy, often in a good way: the climax of the first half in particular is one of the more enjoyably absurd things I’ve ever seen on stage.”

Read The Stage review of Bat Out of Hell

So Bat Out of Hell managed to deliver not just a score that people came out humming, but what the late New York critic Clive Barnes once famously characterised as an experience where they came out humming the scenery.

It was, in this sense, absolutely true to the phenomenon of the British-spawned mega-musicals of the 1980s including Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. As Scott Brown explained, his fellow US critics’ disapproval was based, not on “their bald commercialism, reliance on technical dazzle, or reductio ad Casio derivations of opera”, but, rather “that they were not really musicals at all, but Met-lite-lite spectacles, with gesture in lieu of character and image in lieu of storytelling”.

Here is Bat Out of Hell, masquerading as a musical, in an actual opera house, the London Coliseum. Never mind whether English National Opera should hang its head in shame for putting on this show where Wagner, Puccini and Mozart are usually performed: shortfalls of character and storytelling are among the multiple faults of this empty spectacle.

A week later, The Wind in the Willows – newly written by an all-British creative team led by the prolific musical theatre partnership Stiles and Drewe and book writer Julian Fellowes – opened at another Frank Matcham theatrical palace, and somehow most of the critics couldn’t stomach it.

Read The Stage review of The Wind in the Willows

Yet here is a carefully crafted family musical in a family theatre – a gorgeously designed attempt to do exactly what it says on the tin. And it’s been roundly attacked.

While the West End managed to produce only two original British musicals last year (against some 14 on Broadway), here’s a show that I thought proved homegrown talent could produce the goods.

But no: their attempts have been rebuked, even mocked. If I were a writer of new British musicals, I’d be thoroughly depressed. It isn’t the critics’ duty to cheerlead for shows that aren’t good enough; but it’s no accident that a strong, supportive critical environment for new musicals, in which they are appreciated and understood, is part of what powers the Broadway musical so successfully. With a frequent lack of support over here, no wonder the British musical is failing to make headway.

Here’s hoping that this may change at last with Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which Nica Burns is bringing from Sheffield to the Apollo in November. It’s a show not just to talk about, but to shout about.

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