One of the greatest compliments anybody ever gave me in response to one of my reviews wasn’t even intended by the respondent as a compliment, but I took it as one anyway. The review had come across to a reader as though I had happened to be walking past the theatre, saw the posters for what was on at the time, went to the box office, enquired about tickets, and watched that evening’s performance without having done any background reading or research whatsoever. That, rightly or wrongly, was music to my ears: I try to put myself in the position of someone who has never seen the show before. And it frustrates me when I see a production of say, Twelfth Night, and I find myself having to rely on what I saw and heard in previous productions to piece together what is going on in the one I’m sat in the theatre watching.
I’m not at press night for the latest incarnation of Bat Out of Hell the Musical, which may surprise some people, given that at the time of writing it’s a show I’ve seen fifty-three times (much more than many people, far less than the real hardcore fans). I’m at the National Theatre for the press night of Romeo and Julie instead on the same evening. It comes down to this: I couldn’t possibly come across as someone seeing Bat for the first time. “No matter how I try, I’ll never be able…” (It’s a busy night for LondonTheatre1, with attendance at five other shows.)
After three separate five-star reviews (for press nights at the London Coliseum, Dominion Theatre and New Wimbledon Theatre respectively) I’ve hurled all the superlatives I want to at it. The only way, to misquote the British pop singer Yazz, is down, especially as there have been significant cuts to the show since the previous tour ended in Woking in November 2022, with ‘Who Needs The Young’ removed from the first act, and ‘Not Allowed To Love’ removed from the second. After the first preview at the Peacock Theatre, reactions from the knowledgeable Bat audience ranged from nonchalant to apoplectic.
The show’s lead actor, Glenn Adamson, asked me what I thought about “all the changes” – I told him they might be helpful for someone seeing the show for the first time, as it all makes a little more sense than it used to. There seems to be a drive towards turning Bat into something more conventional: there’s a plot giveaway, for instance, a minute or so into the second half, that wasn’t there before. But part of the charm, for some of its fans, lay in how bonkers Jim Steinman’s musical creation was, and how it took some thought to try to piece together what was effectively a jigsaw puzzle of narrative threads.
There’s far less to piece together in the newest version, and interestingly little bits of dialogue that weren’t in the first preview had reappeared the following evening. I have no idea, therefore, what the press night performance will even look like. But as I said after seeing the show at Swansea Arena: “Some poetical lines just before ‘For Crying Out Loud’ have disappeared. Is the entire c-c-city b-b-b-urning? Can you see the f-f-flames like the inside of a mad jukebox? Do motorcycles reproduce in nocturnal alleys? Have they (whoever ‘they’ are) blown up the YWCA like a giant balloon and sent it out to sea? Nobody knows, and nobody cares.”
I can’t fault the sound in the Peacock Theatre, and either the lighting has marginally improved, and/or the smaller Peacock stage makes it easier to work out who is singing and when by default, or both. The programmes are, to be blunt, extortionate at £12. I recently saw The Lehman Trilogy, where programmes are £8: patrons at the Gillian Lynne Theatre turned their noses up when told the price, and the usher selling them agreed she wouldn’t buy one at that price either. Interestingly, the European leg of the Bat tour has now been cancelled, with the tour instead ending at the Peacock on 1 April 2023. The production team haven’t done badly, though, with a run in Las Vegas and a New Zealand and Australia arena tour, all within the last few months. Of course I’ll be there on the last night. I’ve made friends for life through repeated visits to this show, who have welcomed this acerbic critic with such incredible warmth and kindness (even when I’ve completely forgotten I was part of a group booking for a double-show day!), and so being there as the show finally closes is the least I could do for them.
The beat is yours forever and all that.
Photo credit: Chris Davis Studio