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Bat Out of Hell Poster

July 20, 2017

Yes, finally got it framed and into position on the side of the stationery cupboard at Monkey Towers.

Really nice reward for just filling in their survey at the theatre :).

Bats against Willows

July 19, 2017

To coin a cricketing term, or not. Either way.

An article by top theatre reviewer Mark Shenton in The Stage newspaper of 6th July 2017 debates the wide gulf in professional reviewers’ responses to “Bat Out of Hell” at the London Coliseum and “The Wind in the Willows” at the London Palladium. Opening a week or so apart, in two of the largest (both Matcham designed) theatres originally build for “variety and popular entertainment,” one gained pretty much universal 4 star reviews, the other struggled to reach 3 in many cases.

For Mr Shenton, who incidentally reviewed exactly the opposite way around, the conclusion was that original British shows are given a harder time than imported or derived “jukebox” shows, and this “double standard” directly affected the reviews. Well argued and considered, a good article, but having seen both, I beg to differ.

To be clear, I too was invited to both shows, so didn’t pay for a ticket but was expected to submit written reports read by the production as well as both Theatremonkey.com fans. To also be clear, I genuinely don’t care who has created any production that I see (though I will spend my own cash to see work by people that I particularly admire).

I also loved British shows like “Stephen Ward,” “The Girls” and “Made In Dagenham” when others failed to do so. For this blog article, I will also note that I knew only 1 song well – and just about had heard of 2 more – before seeing “Bat Out Of Hell,” and I wasn’t all that keen to see the show as I don’t particularly like either “jukebox” or over-loud theatre. I was, though, itching to see “The Wind In The Willows” thanks to happy memories of the National Theatre version, and good word from the out-of-town original run of this production. In fact, I even re-arranged my own diary so as not to miss the date I was offered to see it.

Thus, I was as surprised as anyone to be sitting in “The Wind In The Willows” wishing I was back at “Bat Out Of Hell” – or, frankly anywhere else at all. I follow the very strict rule (as laid down by the late Barry Norman) that I must stay to the end, as often all that has gone before will make sense and create a wonderful surprise. On occasion, though, I wish I had taken the lead of most of the rest of my row, and many around me. Simply, I was bored. B.O.R.E.D. The single biggest and always fatal sin in theatre. To have characters and a production that fail to engage the audience so that the are willing to follow a tale (or, tail, in the Willows, I guess) for up to 3 hours.

To break it down, as I saw it.

Bat: Paper-thin but relatable characters – rough boy, posh pretty girl, evil father, split-loyalties mother, gang of friends. Unoriginal, but colourful both visually and in personality, reflecting youthful energy and society that we can recognise today.
Willows: Much-loved characters from childhood. The character traits, though, are all familiar on a daily basis only to someone living in the countryside without the internet, probably; and those happily brought up on similar tales.

 

Bat: Massive set that fills the sides of the stage and leaves space for dancing and impressive – often amusing – special effects at the top of theatrical ability. Costumes and lighting add to the mood. We know we are in dystopia, and it’s pretty raunchy at times, but always something going to happen.
Willows: Large set, some beautiful details – the animal burrows in particular, which are rather lost beyond 10 rows. Also some stonking short-cuts like the reduction of a mansion to a table, and a train out-of-scale with everything else. One horrible and over-used cliché special effect at the end. Costumes refuse to be anthromorphic. Toad has green hair, but that’s about it. The actors don’t even move in “animal” ways a la “Cats.” So how do we really know what they are?

 

Bat: A plot that could be written on a postage stamp, with enough space left over for Amazon’s entire book catalogue, probably twice. Yet it was done with conviction and humour, with enough peril to keep us interested. A small number of characters to track, but plenty of events to draw us into their world right from the start. Sure, the action took a dive for a bit in the second half, but the songs covered it up.
Willows: A familiar tale, oddly stripped of continuity. Endless exposition before the action got going. Characters were introduced then abandoned, the leading toad didn’t even show up until half way through the first half, and was so obnoxious even the kids didn’t care what happened to him – which was lucky as there were several other plots put centre-stage to follow, none of which were really relevant and diverted attention from the main thrust of the story, such as it was.

 

Bat: Whole Jukebox full of songs familiar to those who know the original album. For the terminally uncool like myself, totally and utterly fresh, in the main. And yet, every one sounded like it could have been written for the show, for the stage, and filled the auditorium – not just because of the amplification either.
Willows: All fresh to me, the edge being that I knew the original story. Sadly, many of the songs seemed to echo on the stage before becoming wisps as they crossed the orchestra pit. A couple of nice tunes – really, really nice tunes – but one heck of a lot of surplus ones, too, none of which did anything to cover the slowdown of the plot.

 

Bat: A totally mixed audience, old and young – and, as my own review noted, talking eagerly to each other. Moving forward to empty seats to be near the stage at the interval, knowing “the best songs are yet to come.”
Willows: Mostly bored looking couples, plus a few children with parents or grandparents. Nobody could be bothered to move, some in fact left at the interval. No happy buzz of excited chat either. More questioning if it would end soon.

 

There’s no doubting the creative teams and casts worked equally hard, but theatre is unpredictable and the results, for me at least, were very different. Going by Theatremonkey and also theatreboard readers, the 4 to 1 in favour of Bat, and 4 to 1 against Willows in feedback seems to be shared – mirroring professional review ratios.

Even if, as theatreboard contributor Baemax says, Bat, “Gets a pass for sheer audacity,” it’s enough. Theatre is about getting a reaction, and if one show can when another can’t, that’s the extra distinction between success and failure.

Put another way, I sat in similarly priced seats for both, and “Bat” would have left me satisfied for £65. “Willows,” truthfully, not. Paying “premium” prices, I would still rate the “Bat” worth it, if it comes down to it. “It is the ticket price” as a friend of mine is inclined to say; you are getting a unique experience that simply isn’t available anywhere else.

Honestly, I conclude that for the professional reviewers, there was no malice or holding to standards involved.

It’s a complicated brew that has no formula, but I do doubt it is nationality that has much to do with it. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work – audiences don’t “feel” what the creators want us to. But when it does, oh, what a feeling indeed. Like sinners at the gates of heaven, audiences come crawling on back to the box office for sure… professional reviews or not.

“Blondel”: Union Theatre

July 12, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 9th July 2017).

Interestingly, this tale of Richard The Lionheart’s minstrel was first seen at the other end of the street, when it was the opening show at the then newly refurbished Ed Mirvish Old Vic Theatre in 1983. Coming almost home, this revised version is an exceptionally brave choice by theatre owner Sasha Regan and her team.

As always, the Union goes way beyond usual “Fringe” expectations with a cast of 15 and neat 4 instrument pit band. Ryan Dawson Laight comes up with designs and costumes that are both period and fun (some jeans creep in, along with ballet pumps) and the lack of amplified sound gives us the joy of natural voices.

If we are being totally honest, as our hosts,


the merry Monks (David Fearn, Ryan Hall, Oliver Marshall and Calum Melville) point out, the second half is far shorter than the first… and doesn’t particularly work. It never did, probably won’t… and it doesn’t really matter. For this is a pretty jolly romp, with hilarious Tim Rice lyrics and an acting troupe that refuses to quit entertaining us for a second.

Witty commentators all, you won’t forget ‘Brother’ David Fearn’s opera-trained voice,  ‘Brother’ Ryan Hall’s sense of fun, ‘Brother’ Oliver Marshall’s slight bewilderment nor ‘Brother’ Calum Melville’s dual role of Archbishop willing to compromise for his personal safety.

They set the scenes and keep things moving as we meet aspiring composer

Blondel (Connor Arnold). Leading man looks, comic timing, stage presence, personality in spades, yet with an endearing humility, a future star for certain. If he survives his mother’s sandwiches (please, keep her out of the theatre’s popular café), that is. Union Theatre alumni Katie Meller returns in a very different role (minus the cheese and pickle) and proves once again her versatility in a proud performance.

Jessie May is Blondel’s love, Fiona. I first saw her in “Mamma Mia” in 2010, noting then how musical theatre acting was her strongest suit. Seven years later, she’s even better – and still seemingly unaware of it. A full emotional range from joy to exasperation, a proto-feminist finding a beautiful internal dialogue in “Running Back for More” – casting directors, take note. Oh, and Ms May and her friends are also the splashiest dancers in London.


A chorus of Castle cleaners, “The Four Tubs” (as I nicknamed them) have to develop an independent touring cabaret group (or at least a “Britain’s Got Talent” act – go on, I dare them) based on their “Laundry Lament” – choreographer Chris Whittaker’s best of the fine work in the show. May, Courtney Bowman, Lauren Byrne and Michaela Stern bring the house down with mops – and help cool the front row in this over-heated auditorium, too. If we learn a little too much about one of their love-lives, no matter, all fun. What a bunch of comedians, and indeed singing actors, the lot of them, though.


As their boss another Union Theatre regular, Neil Moors (King Richard – pictured left), is an hilarious icon / star / regal mixture. His steady centring of monarchy allows camply slimy


James Thackeray as brother Prince John to appear even crazier than written… and almost steal the show with “No Rhyme For Richard” (the Tubs backing group, augmented by other cast members, making it even funnier with a quick nod to more than one musical theatre hit).


Hired hitman Michael Burgen (Assassin – pictured right) also gets a lovely chance to shine, spelling out his job and later despatching Monks and crowned heads alike in ever more creative cartoon fashion. Victim Jay Worthy (Saladin / Duke of Austria / Baron) is outstanding, covering three pivotal roles and keeping each very much an individual performance – impressive concentration for sure.

A quick nod too for the mysterious man in green, Craig Nash. Roger Hood, giving it to the poor, I think. Either way, we know who he is, even if Fondle will be the one we all remember. Or something.

And that is the rub. The Rice lyrics are clever, the songs still sound fresh – “The Least of My Troubles” charms, “Saladin Days” is a nice tribute to the original title and “All I Need Are Words” is a real ear-worm. Sadly, however, changes made to the original show (Mathew Pritchard brought in to augment the late Stephen Oliver’s music), alas don’t solve the issue that there isn’t a lot to hang the entire evening on.

This incredibly talented team have probably produced the definitive version of the show, getting every last chuckle and daftness from it, with some good points about feminism and social commentary thrown in for weight. A really great bunch of tunes, even better performed and presented, but alas finally more curio than classic in itself, which is a bit of a pity.

A 5 star show with a 3 star books. It’s a 4, but unmissable – if you can snag a ticket before the run ends this weekend.

 

(photo credit: Scott Rylander. Used by kind permission).

“Working” – Southwark Playhouse

July 5, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 1st July 2017).

It has taken some 40 years for this concept musical based on Stud Terkel’s book of interviews (nice poster tribute in the set) with ordinary working Americans in 1974, to reach London. It’s been revised several times since its first outing in Chicago and short 1978 run on Broadway. The working environment has changed radically too, and yet this show still feels surprisingly contemporary.

Possibly, this was helped by director Luke Sheppard’s bright idea of employing six newly-graduated actors – Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Hoyle, Luke Latchman, Huon Macley and Kerri Norville to act as a sort of chorus for the “old sweats” team Gillan Bevan, Dean Chisnall, Krysten Cummings, Siubhan Harrison, Peter Polycarpou and Liam Tamne who sing about their lives as construction workers, receptionists, flight attendants, truckers, publicists, project managers, delivery staff, teacher and housewife, among others.

Something of a meander, there’s no truly logical construct to the show beyond an expected opening hymn to work “All the Livelong Day” and a “next generation finish” with the wistful hope that everybody will have “Something to Point To” at the end.

Between the two, I’m not sure either that we actually learn anything new. Pretty much as you’d expect, office life is stressful (a few updates are most noticeable here, though little about the pace of life in the modern paper-shuffling factory), while manual labour is hard – sometimes satisfying – and those on the bottom rungs in manufacturing, food and delivery will do anything to break the monotony and hope for a tip.

Still, the cast each get chances to shine. Gillian Bevan gets the very best numbers, “Nobody Tells Me How” from the original score, and a still bitterly relevant commentary on modern teaching; plus the delightful “It’s An Art” celebrating the wonderful service vocation that is waitressing.

Newly re-located song “Brother Trucker” delivered by Dean Chisnall with energetic choreography by Fabian Aloise to show off the youngsters’ chorus is an equally effective set-piece.

Peter Polycarpou’s retired Joe is a stand-out, also as a steel-worker, with pride in his tool belt since the age of 18.

Equally, Siubhan Harrison’s achingly lost factory worker in beautiful song “Millwork” is worthwhile – she also gets to wrap those velvet vocals around a second number later – as does Krysten Cummings as she pours out her hopes in “Cleaning’ Women.”

It is noticeable that gender roles are very much of the period, with no cross-over at all. Whether allowing a woman to be a fire-fighter or a man a housewife would provide a new angle to the show or cause it to dissolve, I’m not sure, but I think I might just have appreciated some kind of attempt to address things, given that the show has been updated.

Still, it’s an interesting “slice of life” with few longeurs and plenty of interesting characters crammed into a 95 minute straight-through running time. The experienced actors are each a unique and original talent, while the newcomers may not yet shine individually, but clearly are gaining much from the experience. Notably their difficult moves were smooth, indicating just how far they must have come as the run nears its end.

There’s only a few days before all punch the clock for the last time. This is worth seeing before then.

4 stars.

Penn & Teller: Live. UK Tour 2017. Apollo Hammersmith.

June 28, 2017

(Seen at the performance on 25th June 2017).

Around 30 years ago, I remember seeing an American magic act on, I think, Ben Elton’s “Friday Night Live.” To a rock beat, two anarchists did a routine with one commentating as another appeared in various holes cut in a cuboid rocket-like structure. Interesting… but then they did it again… this time with clear cubes and a constant refrain of “Trap Door!” Those guys were Penn and Teller, and I was hooked instantly.

A fan for all these years, my bucket-list included seeing the duo live – and last Sunday night that box was finally ticked.

Popular enough to sell out 4 nights in Glasgow and Manchester, plus these 6 at the biggest theatre in London, the audience they draw really is of all ages. Forming a warm bond with the audience to open the show, a terrific youngster of 8 was called to the stage for a P&T version of “Rabbit from a Hat.” Said rabbit ultimately fared far better than one dealt with by an unusually chatty – though inaudible – Teller later, it must be said.

Over two hours of pure fun followed, as the pair presented illusions recent and classic from their repertoire, interspersed with stories and amusing digs at targets like the British Magic Circle and the American “Saturday Night Live” audience. The latter protested in droves at their use of a snake in the old “cut rope” trick (we get that one, ‘carnival geek’ style), but apparently cared not one whit about Teller’s drowning the following week.

A lesson in how not to choose an online password involved five members of the audience and not only confounded the rest of us, but also a magician’s assistant I happened to chat to a few days later. She admitted knowing how it was done… usually… but nothing matched that from my description this time…

And that’s the glory of them. The Heston Blumenthals of magic, endlessly innovative and always unique – even as their 8 year old selves doing the old “cup and ball” routine (and that isn’t a euphemism).

Come the interval (during which Teller likes to walk his cow, according to the video screens), the audience was unusually reluctant to leave. Normally, as the lights go up, there is a stampede for the bar / toilets or both (he gets the drinks, she makes room for them, is my observation). That night, the audience instead remained seated, each grasping two halves of a playing card, comparing them with their neighbours, those in front, and those behind.

Having been asked to choose 4 cards and a cup from a bin in the foyer before the show, Penn had just ended the half by having us all shuffling the cards face down, tearing them in two, exchanging one half of one card with a neighbour, shuffling again, putting one half in a pocket, shuffling and discarding random numbers of card halves into a cup until only a single half was left in a hand. Reach into your pocket for the other half…. remember, the magicians had been on the stage at all times, miles from your seat… and… everybody turn over their cards… Yes! The pieces match! 3300 people simultaneously gasping, “What The F…?!!!” Mathematical, probably, but we swapped card halves, remember…

If their big trick after the interval didn’t go entirely according to plan (mobile phone tricks seem doomed) the second half was as much a pleasure, with the beautiful “shadow cut flower” and less aesthetic but thrilling “Teller Trap” finale. You will never make a sandwich in the same way again.

Most of all, though, and the bucket-list tick of bucket-list ticks, was finally seeing “Miser’s Dream” performed live. For more years than I remember, I’ve loved this sensitive, silent illusion, with an ending that confirms the value of life truly is the triumph of living gold over cold dead silver. My all-time equal favourite illusion (Paul Daniel’s “Magic Kettle” being the other), and without peer.

I think that this is the heart of my hero-worship of this pair. That philosophical humanity underscores all that they do, and they simply love to be a part of making life just that bit more wonderful and inexplicable for all. The sheer humility, perhaps their greatest trade mark, shines through in their live show.

From the very, very reasonably priced souvenirs (most “tours” try and make as much as they can; here, for example, a programme was a West-End matching £8, but with better content) through the unforgettable evening of hard-work and originality – for which they publically thank their whole team – and ending with an open-ended “meet and greet” time in front of the theatre after the show for anyone wishing to stay, Penn and Teller are not just magicians at the very pinnacle of their profession, but people choosing to live at very pinnacle of life.

I’m hoping they return to the UK soon, and the line for tickets starts here.

 

Pure magic, unmissable.
5 glittering stars.

Guest Blog: The Joy of Repeat Visits, by Tonyloco

June 21, 2017

ON THE TOWN (15 June, 2017, Open Air Theatre): My third visit to On the Town in as many weeks was more enjoyable than my second, which was more enjoyable than my first and this prompts me to set down some thoughts about the pleasures to be had from seeing a favourite musical several times, or sometimes a lot more than that!

My serious theatre-going began in Sydney towards the end of 1948 when I was  aged eleven with several visits to Annie Get Your Gun at the Theatre Royal starring the American actress Evie Hayes. I believe I saw it six times, including once or twice when it returned to Sydney the following year to the Empire Theatre after its tour to Melbourne, Adelaide and the other Aussie capital cities. I was totally won over by the very generous, big-hearted performance of Miss Hayes in the title role and I just loved all the music.  I had a copy of the piano vocal score (I still have it) and I used to play it through literally from cover to cover, sometimes inviting the neighbours in for a sing-song around the piano.  I was actually quite precocious at playing the piano, thanks to my early training at the Shefte College of Music where one learned the basic chords and how to play them under the melody line, and Irving Berlin’s songs in Annie are all quite straightforward and easy to play, even for a clever eleven-year-old!

Annie was followed in Sydney by most of the other big Broadway hits of the time including Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, Paint your Wagon, South Pacific etc., all of which I saw once or perhaps twice but my next big fixation was probably Kiss Me, Kate (1952), of which I couldn’t get enough. This was strongly cast with the charismatic American actor Hayes Gordon as Fred Graham, Joy Turpin as Lilli Vanessi and the wonderful Maggie Fitzgibbon as Lois Lane and I responded strongly to Cole Porter’s sophisticated score. Also around this time Evie Hayes starred in Call Me Madam, which was where I first discovered the actors’ trick of corpsing on purpose. There is a scene where Mrs Sally Adams, the newly-appointed American Ambassador to Lichtenburg, is wearing a formal evening dress with a long train and in practising how to walk backwards out of the presence of royalty she manages to get herself tangled up in the train. The first time I saw the show this scene was hilarious and one got the impression that it was funnier at that performance than it had ever been before and the actors themselves couldn’t help laughing. But when I saw the show several more times, exactly the same thing happened and I realised the whole thing was rehearsed and planned, even though it seemed totally spontaneous.  I can now spot this kind of planned corpsing and can thoroughly enjoy it when it is well done, as in ‘You’re timeless to me’ in Hairspray or despise it, as when it happened several times in One Man, Two Guv’nors.

Since coming to London in 1960, I have had periods of intense theatre-going but also long periods of abstinence, particularly when I was playing the piano for old time music hall and variety. Throughout most of the early time I usually saw shows I liked more than once, generally because I just wanted to enjoy them again. I saw Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be six times and it was always great. Another show I saw several times was Irma la Douce mainly because I liked the show a lot but none of the leading ladies I saw seemed to be able to survive the gruelling vocal demands of the role. By the early 1960s the ladies seemed to change fairly frequently and it was not until about the fourth viewing (and fourth Irma), that I felt full justice was being done to the role. I started off with the original (1958) Irma, Elizabeth Seal, but by March 1960 she was almost voiceless. I know I also saw Shani Wallace and Mary Preston and possibly somebody else as well.

Then there is a long gap through my music hall years until what is fairly much the present time. In that long interim period I would usually see musicals just once, even the ones that were sensationally good like the National Theatre’s Oklahoma! and Carousel but I then re-discovered that there was a great deal of pleasure from going to see favourite shows over and over. One example of this was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, of which I didn’t see the original cast of Michael Ball, Brian Blessed and co, but went to it for the first time when I discovered one of my music hall buddies called Graham Hoadly was in it, playing several small roles and covering several of the larger parts like the Toymaker and Lord Scrumptious. I was fascinated by this rather complex, sprawling show and soon found that there were always cast changes happening with new stars joining, or covers going on (all of which Graham kept me informed about) and even the structure of the show would change. Both of the Strallen girls appeared as Truly Scrumptious, sometimes I think they just swapped among themselves unofficially. The two comics (Boris and Goran) used to embroider their scenes beyond recognition and I suspect Jeremy Sammes the writer or Adrian Noble the director from time to time would insist on getting them back to the authorised script because their scenes would suddenly change all over again. And there would also be changes in the basic show, for example a funny little scene involving one of the dogs who would sit still in the middle of the stage while one of the comics was firing a rifle, just suddenly disappeared and was never seen again.  There were also several different teams of dogs of different breeds and one never knew exactly what they were going to do at any performance. Graham told me that one particular team of quite small dogs were extremely obnoxious and the actors hated them! And the final atrocity was the complete deletion of the prologue showing the car race where the car got smashed up. This was near the end of the London run and was apparently dropped to simplify the show in preparation for the Broadway production. They needn’t have bothered as the show ran for only just over 300 performances on Broadway and lost most of its $15 million investment. Come to think of it, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was probably unique in the number of changes I saw made to the basic show during the later part of its run, although I bitterly regretted the serious amount of pruning to the script that was done quite early in the run of Mary Poppins to make it more palatable to very small children who shouldn’t have been in the theatre anyway!

Another great favourite was Spamalot, where there were occasional cast changes to see, but the main reason for repeated viewings was that I kept spotting more details of the jokes and the humour on each new viewing.  Perhaps this just proves that I am a bit dumb, but I kept finding more and more to laugh at each time I saw it.  This pleasure of watching a joke being set up was also very evident in the pantomime Mother Goose at Hackney where knowing what was coming greatly enhanced the pleasure of my second viewing as I watched the characters preparing the gags in advance and teasing out the laughs.

Another element that sometimes repays repeated visits is the quality of the orchestra. The production of Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly had a terrific orchestra playing what I thought was a better orchestration, with the right amount of brass, than the National Theatre version which sounded far too heavy on reeds (saxophones mainly). I returned to the front row of the Piccadilly several times, not only to enjoy some cast changes (all very successful) but also just to revel in the very theatrical sound of the orchestra.  The same thing is true right now with my fixations on 42nd Street and On the Town where it is the sound of the orchestra that affords me as much pleasure as the other elements of the productions.  I should also say that I was very impressed with the sound of the orchestras at Wimbledon recently for both Cats and The Addams Family, although I saw each of them only once.

Of course, sometimes I want to see a production more than once simply because it is a top class realisation of a very good show and into this category I would put Ian Talbot’s recent production of The Boy Friend, as well as his HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, all in Regent’s Park, and La Cage aux Folles when Douglas Hodge was in it. For these shows, as with On the Town and 42nd Street at present, I have been able on repeated visits just to wallow in every element of each of the productions and get a very complete kind of enjoyment of what I have decided at the grand old age of 80 is probably my favourite form of theatrical entertainment, pace Maria Callas, Jussi Björling, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Otto Klemperer, Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein and the rest of the many iconic classical artists I have seen and enjoyed performing serious classical repertoire throughout my life. I guess Irving Berlin was right when he said in Annie Get Your Gun: ‘There no business like show business’!

 

Tony
17 June 2017

 

Tony is a retired musician and musical director, who has worked extensively in the West End.

Bat Out Of Hell – London Coliseum

June 14, 2017

(seen at the performance on 13th June 2017)

Once upon a time, around 20 years ago now, a show called “Grease,” and a show called “Cats” probably met on a street called “Broadway.” In a short time, they decided to get married. They gave each other a “special cuddle” and, well, 18 years later this is the result.

And I’m not really joking.

It’s 2100, and an accident has left a group kids underground in the big city, stuck permanently at that age. “Peter Pan” style there’s “the boy who never grew up,” Strat (Andrew Polec) and sidekick Tink (Aran Macrae) to head up this gang.

Above, in Falco Tower, Strat’s obsession Raven (Christina Bennington) is about to reach her real 18th Birthday with warring parents dictator Falco (Rob Fowler) determined to keep her out of Strat’s reach, and rockin’ wife Sloane (Sharon Sexton) keeping herself firmly in both camps.

Like “Grease” this is full of that special energy only those who are 18 forever could have, plus all the angst that goes with it. Like “Cats,” this a wafer-thin plot which holds strong and true for the most part, across almost three hours, as a hugely talented ensemble play on a stonkingly clever Jon Bausor set. A guitar fret is a tower block, there’s plenty of projection work from Finn Ross that brings it all to life and also one of the funniest “fourth wall breaking” visual jokes the monkey has seen in years.

To get the faults out of the way, the second half could do with a little more plot – except that to actually cut scenes would mean losing some terrific songs and great dance numbers. That one is a bit of an insoluble. There is a fair amount of strong language too, not all of it required. On the other hand, the fairly racy material renders the show unsuitable for under 14s anyway, so, leave it in. Oh, and one quip was filthy, but hilarious, anyway.

Back to the great stuff.

There’s enough talented eye-candy to satisfy all. Mr Polec and Miss Bennington are sufficient not only to tickle the fancy, but massively gifted singers and dancers too, with strong enough acting skills to get us invested in their characters even when the plot veers a little unsteadily. Both their solo vocals are show-stoppers and they truly drive the tribal aspect in the big numbers involving equally accomplished fellow ensemble members. Aran Macrae in particular deserves a note as Tink, as does Danielle Steers as tribal wise-person Zahara in a pivotal supporting role.

Excellent work too from Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton, particularly as they re-live their youth and later as they reveal very different aspects of their characters – again finding depth where none really exists in the script.

If, like me, you only really know “Bat Out of Hell” – given a terrific explosive treatment here – and “Anything For Love,” don’t worry. The rest of the songs, “Heaven Can Wait,” “You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth,” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and more (annoyingly, the programme doesn’t list them, and I’m not a big enough fan to instantly know) all land as if written for the theatre in the first place. Better still, though I used earplugs, for most they are at a volume where words are clear and the bass is exciting enough to shake the audience “just for the hell of it.”

Put simply, a show that has even me “up and dancing” at the end has to have something special. It’s “Batty As Hell,” true – insubstantial on the story, but so high-energy, with a gloriously fun cast doing amazing things with their talent that it’s pretty much irresistible for anyone seeking a hard-rocking night out. Interestingly, during the interval this middle aged conservative bloke happened to get chatting to a much facially-pierced, crop-cut late teenage lady. We were both as hyped as each other on the show, and both enjoyed our brief and excited conversation, which I think says it all. It crosses the barriers and makes everyone’s world just that bit better.

Easy 4 stars for now, and if they sorted out the second half, would have been 5.

 

Oh, and as a coda, if (as they were on my night) they are handing out audience surveys to complete, do. Return it after the show to the box office and you get a free poster – the type you see on the Underground Station escalators. Brilliant souvenir and £15 cheaper than the print they sell in the gift shop. Worth knowing, I think.

 

For seating advice, in addition to the stuff on Theatremonkey, I would go for the dress circle and upwards, for overall view. If in the stalls, around row G back, gives the best view. If further forward in the stalls, then centre block first, then “low numbers” side of the auditorium if possible in the side blocks. There are relatively cheaper seats on the side blocks of row A that are worth a look – take the one closest to the centre aisle first, the rest on the “low numbers” side after that, and then the rest on the high numbers side. Same goes for rows B and C cheaper seats behind, too, I feel.