On the subject of Bat Out of Hell the Musical...
Luke Sampson, Paula Hall, Julia Prior, me, Sarah Forrester, Tessa Prior. Photo credit: Catherine Francoise
“I don’t know anyone who has seen the same show as many times as you’ve seen Bat Out of Hell!”
So said another theatre reviewer to my face recently. Another reviewer said to me, after seeing the umpteenth social media update in which I was paying another visit to Bat Out of Hell The Musical at London’s Dominion Theatre, that I should write my memoirs and call it ‘Bats’. I briefly gave it some thought as I sat waiting for the show to start, and just as briefly dismissed the idea: if I had really achieved something of significance, that might be worth writing a book about, especially if I were commissioned to write it, but otherwise it would be rather too self-serving and narcissistic.
I managed twenty-five visits to the show (John Gudgin, who goes by ‘Bat Loaf’ on social media, notched up 61 visits to the London Coliseum and 130 to the Dominion Theatre), starting with a preview performance at the London Coliseum in June 2017 and finishing with the last show of the run at the Dominion Theatre in January 2019. By the time that Coliseum preview performance came around I was kindly invited to review the show on press night. Having later reviewed it again after it went to Toronto and back, going into the Dominion Theatre on Easter Monday 2018, there’s a reason why the press allocation was largely upstairs (even if I later discovered there were indeed other reviewers downstairs) on both occasions. It’s such a large production that giving a critical opinion on it is more easily done seeing it from further back. The lighting is quite remarkable, though probably not recommended for people with epilepsy, and the production has done well to adapt to being in various venues: it previewed before the Coliseum run at the Manchester Opera House, and then went to the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto before returning to London.
The negative reviews
It is not possible to please everyone all of the time, and Bat Out of Hell The Musical attracted some negative press. David Guest for The Reviews Hub dismissed it as “mostly terrible, cringeworthy and unfathomable”, while Marianka Swain for The Arts Desk suggested the ‘arrested development’ Falco (Rob Fowler) sings about in the opening minutes is indicative of the production itself. Debbie Gilpin for Mind The Blog could go no higher than two stars, though she later told me she was impressed by what she described as leading man Andrew Polec’s “commitment to the role”. The only reference that comes to mind in terms of anyone having issues with Polec’s performance was Lizzie Loveridge for Curtain Up, saying there were ‘problems’ with his singing voice in the first half at the performance she saw, but no details are given as to what these issues were.
Stefan Kyriazis for the Daily Express was distinctly unimpressed. “As a musical, a narrative or any kind of commentary on the human state this fails on every imaginable level.” And then there was Quentin Letts for the Daily Mail. “My ears,” he wrote, in response to one of the questions posed in the musical, ‘What part of my body hurts the most?’ adding that “the very first bone-jolting chord… made me spill my beer”. As the opening sequence, ‘Love and Death and the American Guitar’ would put it, these people have got a hell of a lot to learn about rock and roll.
The positive reviews
Little old me declared the Coliseum run a “lively, loud and loveable production”, and the Dominion run had “dynamic performances all round… The whole thing is ridiculously but marvellously over the top, and the special effects continue to demonstrate what theatre is now delivering.” Jane Kemp for What’s On Stage praised what she described as “a full throttle, high volume, spectacular rebirth of a musical masterpiece”. Andrew Polec’s “voice sails through the high-voltage demands of the songs, and he sizzles with passionate, restless energy throughout”.
Mikey Smith in the Daily Mirror wrote that the production is “an overblown, melodramatic, explosive – not to mention extremely loud – assault on the senses”. Caroline Farmer for Carn’s Theatre Passion “felt five stars just isn’t enough to reflect how good or rather how much I enjoyed this show”, and Anne Cox for Stage Review deemed the show “the most over-the-top, out-sized musicals that you’ll ever see”. Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times remarked that “even for those of us who aren’t devotees [of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman], it’s thrilling. And I don’t say that to all the boys.”
Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Bat Out of Hell won the BBC Radio 2 Audience Award for Best Musical.
The fan groups
I wasn’t around when Meat Loaf first released the Bat Out of Hell album, but I was mesmerised when Bat Out of Hell II was released in 1993. In that year ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’ was the best-selling single in the UK. There was some ribbing of the relative lengths not only of the singles themselves being released, but also of the lengths of their titles – for instance, ‘Objects In The Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are’. While most chart music songs come in at under five minutes, some of Meat’s would go on for more than double that.
A Facebook group called ‘The Bat Clan’ was already up and running by the time I got to see the show at the Coliseum. This was started by Wigan-based Martin Spencer on 4 December 2016 (according to his Facebook profile). Although the Manchester Opera House run was not to start until February 2017, tickets had already gone on sale by this point, and there was growing interest from some fans of Meat Loaf – and disgust from others who were unable and/or unwilling to accept that anyone other than Meat should take on singing songs that Jim Steinman wrote for Meat to sing.
A five-star review from yours truly meant that I was readily accepted into the ‘Clan’ (though I get the feeling they would have been happy for me to be there regardless), and as my interest in the show continued to grow once the Coliseum press night review was filed and published, I was always able to ask as many questions, however technical or detailed, and receive comprehensive responses from several other members.
The exchange of views was always very courteous, and aside from the occasional irrelevant response from those who thought they could teach me a thing or two about theatre in general, even though I have probably seen more productions than they have, it was rather refreshing to be met with nothing but civility and warmth. ‘Tunnels of Obsidian’ and ‘Jim Steinman’s Rockman Philharmonic Deep, Deep End’ have also been very kind; in the latter, admin Angie Winterbottom went out of her way to encourage members to read what she thought to be a well-considered review from me.
As for the ‘Clan’, the final show at the Coliseum in August 2017 (for which a friend interrupted her annual visit to the Edinburgh Fringe to attend) resulted in a ‘Clanners’ after-show party at the Roadhouse bar in Covent Garden, one of those places that plays music so loud that attempts at conversation are futile unless one speaks directly into someone else’s ear. Sarah Furbey, who now (as I understand it) manages deVience, a rock band led by Gio Spano (Bat Out of Hell’s Ledoux) kindly introduced me to anybody and everybody, and it was a pleasure to have met Sheila, the mother of Bat Out of Hell’s musical director Rob Emery. That night was a celebration and not a lament, as it had been officially confirmed that the show would return to London in 2018. I daresay Ms Furbey did a much better job looking after the group on closing night than certain PR firms do looking after reviewers on press nights!
The ‘Clan’ also liked to sing, without musical accompaniment, songs from the Bat Out of Hell The Musical repertoire, doing so on opening and closing nights (I think) at Manchester Opera House, the London Coliseum and the Dominion Theatre. I am not aware of what the arrangements were for the runs at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto. Assembling before 6pm at a pre-arranged point large enough to accommodate a choir-sized crowd, it became something of a tradition, often captured by the show’s own official social media accounts. The performances in and of themselves were never much to write home about, but they did demonstrate the love and passion for the production in a way that is rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere, and it appears to have been a gesture much appreciated by the show’s producers.
Connections for life
On the final day of the Dominion Theatre run, just after the muck up matinee performance, I was suddenly invited to dinner with some fellow fans of the show. Naturally, I accepted (as I was going to get a bite to eat anyway between shows: to hell, so to speak, with feeling peckish during post-10pm speeches and encores at the final performance). We were not the only ones who had become friends as a result of repeated visits to the show – a number of bars and restaurants in the area were filled with Bat fans. The friendships will continue (inasmuch as I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t), and while there are no firmed-up plans for the show to return to British shores at the time of writing, cast members are going into other shows, and are also performing their own gigs and concerts in various places. As a previous generation sang, ‘We’ll meet again,’ and in some cases, we do know where and when, as it happens.
The front page of 'The Obsidian Times'. The free newspaper was distributed throughout the theatre auditorium but ceased publication after Andrew Polec left the show on 1 September 2018.
What’s going on?
A question asked by some who attended the show for the first time, particularly later in the run. In the early days, patrons were treated to a copy of ‘The Obsidian Times’, which set out some details and set the scene. Jim Steinman’s fascination with ‘Peter Pan’ extends far beyond Meat Loaf’s band being called the Neverland Express. Collectively, The Lost were comparable to ‘the lost boys’ in the JM Barrie play and novel, and the character of Tink in the musical broadly comparable to Tinkerbell. One need not necessarily know Peter Pan, but it helps. An article on the front page of The Obsidian Times says, “Scientists are still no closer to discovering the secret behind the strange phenomenon of ‘The Lost’. When these young people reach the age of eighteen their DNA freezes and they subsequently never age. Nobody knows why.”
Another reads, “Falco Industries have released plans to build several new housing projects. Worth millions of dollars, Falco intends to demolish the abandoned tunnels and subways that run under the city. Fierce opposition to the plan has emerged from The Lost who live among Obsidian’s homeless community.” Obsidian itself is, according to a pre-show graphic that used to be displayed as the audience continued to file in, what used to be downtown Manhattan in New York City. The apocalypse has been and gone, and the remaining citizens must deal with the aftermath. But all this background wasn’t made half as clear later on in the show’s run, leaving some audience members experiencing the show for the first time wondering what on earth was going on.
At one performance, a young couple sat on my right felt they had no choice but to take an early train home at the interval because they simply couldn’t get their heads around what was happening in terms of storyline. That is regrettable. Yes, I could have told them, but for some years now I have been a great believer in people being able to appreciate a production for what it is without having to do ‘homework’ beforehand, or indeed afterwards. A former work colleague expressed similar sentiments about the plot, though she did say enjoyed the songs. Others, though, managed to figure it out even without a newspaper or pre-show graphics.
Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton in Bat Out of Hell The Musical. Photo credit: Specular.
‘Vision of You’
Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton, who played Falco and Sloane, the property developer with an aversion to members of The Lost and his wife respectively, released an album with eleven songs, featuring Bat Out of Hell’s associate musical director Steve Corley on keyboard, including ‘Falling Slowly’ from Once (the movie and the musical), and ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’, the 1978 Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond duet. The album explores the ‘backstory’ of the couple, and the songs selected collectively demonstrate the performers’ versatility to express emotions through various styles of music. I bought the CD from the merchandise stand at the Dominion Theatre, though I understand it is available for purchase online.
Jordan Luke Gage in Bat Out of Hell The Musical.
Different Strats, stamping their own authority on the role
Over the New Year holiday 2018/19 I spent three consecutive evenings at the Dominion Theatre. The sheer contrast through which different actors portrayed the leading role was part of the fun of it all. Jordan Luke Gage led the cast at the New Year’s Eve ‘singalong’ performance, having succeeded Andrew Polec as principal Strat after Polec’s final London performance on 1 September, a rather different experience in its own right. Some people rather jokingly commented that every show was effectively a sort-of ‘singalong’ performance anyway: the show is so loud that it is rare for audience members to be heard over the sound of the cast and orchestra. My companion for press night at the London Coliseum sang away to his heart’s content. But it is rare for this to be actively encouraged, to the point of designating certain shows as ‘singalong’ performances, even putting the words up for everyone to follow. The first ‘singalong’ didn’t have every lyric to every song, but the Halloween and New Year’s Eve ones did.
Simon Gordon backstage at Bat Out of Hell The Musical.
Gage is markedly different to Polec, and I must admit that the very first time I saw him in the leading role, I wasn’t exactly taking to Twitter to sing his praises. But he has steadily grown into the character, and by the time the final week came along, I could overhear members of the audience in the interval going as far as to favourably compare Gage to Meat Loaf. Gage’s alternate, Simon Gordon, had a way of showing how despondent Strat could be – the sadness he expressed when Alex Thomas-Smith’s Tink suffered the same fate as Tinkerbell was unparalleled. Gordon also hit the high notes – at the final line of the show, there’s not much in it between him and Mariah Carey.
Barney Wilkinson takes a bow at curtain call at the end of a performance of Bat Out of Hell The Musical.
Not everyone was impressed as I was with Gage’s understudy, Barney Wilkinson. One fellow fan said she thought he could do with a bit more practice when it came to swinging a microphone cord (in the title musical number in the show), and another noticed he had a tendency to rush through the spoken dialogue. I didn’t notice the former and I disagree with the latter. The powerhouse voice that came out from Wilkinson had me at ‘hello’, so to speak, and he has a grounded rock and roll singing vocals that suit the songs so well. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought Andrew Polec had returned to the show.
I wasn’t there when it happened as the pantomime and seasonal shows press night round was in full swing, but on 3 December 2018, Wilkinson really did take the words out of people’s mouths when, during ‘Hot Summer Night’, he fell off the mattress and into the pool. According to his own Twitter, he was “gassed to be on with Eve Norris [understudy Raven] and thought I’d give it a bit of extra ‘gusto’ in my backwards roll during one of those musical numbers we do. Think forgetting a line is bad? Try rolling into a pool of water YOU’RE NEVER SUPPOSED TO BE IN.” His last performance as Strat in the final week was nothing short of epic, and to see him and Christina Bennington clearly having the time of their lives together on stage was just wonderful to witness. I understand Wilkinson gained more fans and followers after both Gage and Gordon were off at the same time in mid-December, leaving him to lead the show for several consecutive performances.
Giovanni Spano on 'The X-Factor'.
There’s isn’t anything I can say about Giovanni Spano’s performances on ‘The X-Factor’, as it’s a show I avoid like the plague. But the fan backlash against that television show was inevitable when Spano was eventually eliminated. While he was on television, his role in Bat Out of Hell was covered by Sam Toland for the most part, and other times by Eric Hallengren, and when the occasion called for it, Olly Dobson. Toland had a habit on social media of inserting the word ‘Ledoux’ into lyrics of chart music tunes, which always made me smile. A couple of examples: “Ledoux you remember the twenty-first night of September?” and “Everything I Ledoux, I Ledoux it for you”.
Danielle Steers, Christina Bennington and Sharon Sexton during a performance of 'Good Girls Go To Heaven' during the extended encore, Dominion Theatre, 5 January 2019. Photo credit: David Akerman.
Wait and see
At the final performance at the Dominion Theatre, two songs that were taken out of the show after it had played to paying audiences were performed as part of an extended encore. The removal of ‘It Just Won’t Quit’ in the final weeks of the London Coliseum run upset Christina Bennington more than anyone (or so it would seem), while ‘Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)’ didn’t even make it to press night at Manchester Opera House, let alone the London and Toronto runs. Jim Steinman and the other creatives involved have their reasons for removing those songs, but the Dominion cast made a strong case (intentional or not) to reinstate them.
There are, fans are fairly regularly assured, plans underfoot to bring Bat Out of Hell back in some way or another. There is continuing talk of performances to take place in Australia in the future, and while the North American Tour had its dates pulled and its cast and crew suddenly left unemployed, hopes for those on the other side of the Atlantic to see a touring production have not (yet) died completely. All we can do at this juncture is exercise patience: as a commercial for a certain beverage would have it, good things come to those who wait.