By Dominic Cavendish
A care-banishing blast of wild-child zaniness - Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, review
★★★★☆ (4 stars)
It's the end of civilisation as we know it! A jukebox musical based on the back-catalogue of that famously chunky (recently slimmed-down) American rock legend Meat Loaf – actually penned by his gifted on-off song-writer partner Jim Steinman – has taken up summer residence at the palatial home of ENO.
The pair (reconciled these days after much-publicised rifts) dubbed their full-throttle, high-decibel, knowingly OTT and melodramatic music “Wagnerian rock”. Opera-lovers might well be forgiven, however, for fearing the venue's coffers are being filled at the expense of its artistic reputation.
Those who worry the place is going to hell in a handcart, though, should relax: given the depressingly grim news we've been subjected to of late, this riotous invasion makes a demented kind of sense, zapping its audience with a care-banishing current of wild-child zaniness.
I have to confess to a total lack of prior excitement about the show, getting its world premiere 40 years after its namesake album – initially rejected by sniffy record execs but going on to sell millions of copies and, Star Wars-style, form part of a prog-rock “trilogy” (continued in 1993 and completed in 2006).
Running to an overlong three hours, and cramming in greatest hits (and not so-great hits), Bat Out of Hell won't win awards for reinventing the musical. Set in a dystopian future of generic oppression and mutinous youth it recalls We Will Rock You, but the book is even weaker than that long-running Queen cash-in, spinning out a yarn involving a Romeo-like renegade called Strat, and Raven, a princessy type confined to a high-rise boudoir by controlling, frustrated parents.
Yet to focus on its evident weaknesses, which extend in Jay Scheib's pumped-up, pyrotechnics-loaded, Max Mad-fashioned production to some iffy video-work, is to miss the life-affirming point. The “story” is based on Peter Pan – Bat Out of Hell was first conceived as a musical called Neverland – and the essential appeal is to our inner arrested adolescent. 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.
Would it make more sense on the main-stage at Glastonbury? Undoubtedly. But faced with the chance of seeing it in town, whether a fervent fan or idly curious, I wouldn't bat away the offer.