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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.

2 Comments
  1. July 19, 2017 2:36 pm

    Hi Steve,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your piece comparing ‘Bat Out of Hell’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Of course that’s the magic of theatre in that not only do critics respond differently to the same show but so do audiences. After all those five-star reviews I was expecting to have a wonderful time at ‘An American in Paris’ but I was seriously disappointed by the dull book and a wrong-headed abstract ballet as its climax. So what are we theatre-goers to do? If the critics are divided or they all rubbish it then we take pot luck if we go to see the show to make our own judgement, but if they are all ecstatic with praise and we hate it then we are doubly disappointed and think twice about spending the time and money to go to see the next show! No, I haven’t yet booked for the revival of ‘The Woman in White’, one of the worst musicals I have ever seen – but no wonderful surprise was forthcoming at the end of that one, just a lot of long faces on the audience as they filed mournfully out of the theatre!
    Tony

    • Steve Rich permalink
      July 26, 2017 8:00 am

      Only saw this just now. I guess it is true that we take our chances, whatever we do, LOL.

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