For the second time in as many months, I found myself in a late-night concert and conversation with musical theatre rising star Luke Bayer. At least that’s my excuse for being brief on this occasion: it wasn’t that long ago that I put my thoughts on paper keyboard about this young man. This time around, theatre producer Paul Taylor-Mills hosted the event, called ‘Late Bites’, a two-week series of solo concerts and chats as part of MT Fest UK, a fortnight-long festival showcasing new musical theatre talent. Taylor-Mills put some context to Bayer’s career, starting at the beginning (to quote The Sound of Music, ‘a very good place to start’) with a video clip of 14-year-old Luke participating in The X-Factor. Adult Luke looking back at Teen Luke was a sight to behold.
There were five songs in amongst all the banter, beginning with the (perhaps inevitable) ‘Wall In My Head’ from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and closing up with ‘For Forever’ from Dear Evan Hansen. Many in this discernible and stagey audience had, of course, seen Luke’s online video footage of ‘Waving Through A Window’ from that show (his YouTube channel is worth a watch – there’s quite a collection of showtunes to see and hear there).
There was also ‘Rise Up’, which was introduced merely as ‘Rise Up’, without any further details, so I can’t say much more about it, except to say it’s nothing to do with the musical Hamilton, and in any case that song where the words ‘rise up’ are repeated several times is called ‘My Shot’. ‘She Used To Be Mine’, from Waitress, already a go-to subtly emotional number for many a musical theatre concert, sounded sublime being given the Luke Bayer treatment, as did ‘No Limits’, a song from a musical of the same name written by Sam Thomas.
There was also plenty to discuss, with Luke’s most salient piece of advice being to “get over yourself” and not take oneself too seriously. But like Paul, I had assumed Luke as a youngster would have been rather bashful – as I turned out, there was a side to his personality which was quite unexpected. Some years ago, his older sister’s pet hamster bit him; the rodent paid the price, to put it politely. As Paul pointed out, Luke oozes positivity. My thanks to MT Fest UK for allowing me to attend free of charge, to Paul and Luke for being so lovely, and to Perry O’Bree for being such great company.
Of course, I knew the name. Chita Rivera. Mostly because an apparent feud between her and Rita Moreno was included in the Forbidden Broadway satirical musical revue. It’s telling, I suppose, that of all the various people Rivera name-dropped in a relatively brief but nonetheless enthralling concert, Moreno wasn’t one of them. This was a trip down memory lane for Rivera, as well as for her supporters, which on the night included Dame Judi Dench. At 86 years, Rivera not only continues to walk unaided but dances to the beat of the live orchestra (directed by Michael Croiter). Some of the musical numbers are a challenge for almost anyone, such as a Jacques Brel song which builds in builds (as Brel’s songs tend to do) in intensity and rapidity, and if it wasn’t for a certain raspiness in Rivera’s voice that comes with advancing years, she might have gotten away with coming across as someone half her age.
There was a sweet and amusing impersonation of Gwen Verdon in a tune from Chicago, and Rivera had a lovely habit of singing both Rosalia and Anita’s lines in ‘America’ from West Side Story, and even all three parts in ‘Camille, Colette, Fifi’, a tune from Seventh Heaven (a show which I admit to knowing nothing about). Rivera’s first West End role was a reprise of Anita, which she had played on Broadway, in West Side Story, which opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1958. Such is Rivera’s vivid memory that she still recalls the rehearsal period in the Theatre Royal Haymarket across the road, and its resident ghost.
Her only moment off-stage (apart from the interval, of course) was when, having begun ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story, she let the ArtsEd Choir sing the remainder. To the audience’s credit, there were people who rose to their feet in appreciation of the student performers, just as they had risen after Rivera’s still effervescent rendering of ‘America’ a few moments before. Still a ‘triple threat’, Rivera had her fair share of anecdotes about her working relationships with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, all of whom, like so many of the people she mentioned (including Welsh actor and director Roger Rees) had now passed on.
A pleasant and unique experience.
The problem with calling a show 4 One Night Only is this. What happens if the audience has such a good time that a suggestion to do additional performances, perhaps with alterations to the line-up (always dependent on people’s availability as much for the actors as it is for the audience) and/or the running order, is responded to with overwhelming positivity? It’s a nice problem to have – they’ll just have to come up with another name. Many of the people present, including yours truly, never really had much of a reason to pay a visit to the Academy Theatre in Barnsley. For one thing, it isn’t in Barnsley proper, but in a village called Birdwell, just off Junction 36 of the M1, around 4 ½ miles away from Barnsley station.
Birdwell did have a railway station of its own at one point, but this was closed down even before the Beeching cuts. Sylvia Young, founder and principal of the performing arts school that bears her name, apparently stayed in Birdwell as a child evacuee at some point during the Second World War. The Academy Theatre, part of the Take 2 Centre (comprising the theatre, a performing arts academy and ‘Chatterbox Nursery’), seats 172, very tightly. Front row is good from what I could see but other than that there is very little legroom, and no armrests between the seats, such that I found it quite impossible to do “a jump to the left / And then a step to the right” during ‘The Time Warp’ from The Rocky Horror Show. The seats in the bus station at Barnsley Interchange were more comfortable. Incidentally, Academy Theatre is not the largest venue in the village: Birdwell Venue claims a capacity of 450.
So why Birdwell? 4 One Night Only’s host, Danielle Steers, critically acclaimed for putting in a magnificent performance of (amongst other songs) the Meat Loaf hit ‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’ eight times a week in Bat Out of Hell The Musical, had, she told the audience, been performing there, her local theatre, since her school days. The word ‘homecoming’ wasn’t used but there’s no denying that this was (kind of) what this event was. She’d done a West End show, attended (separately) by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Meat Loaf and HRH The Duke of Sussex, and now, in her home venue, she’d brought along some co-stars – (in no particular order) Rob Fowler, Sharon Sexton and Simon Gordon, for a great time. There may or may not have been one or two locals in the crowd who hadn’t seen ‘Bat’. But I suspect even they will have heard and read enough about it to get the gist.
A technician referred to only as ‘Peter’ seemed to be (as far as I could deduce) controlling sound and lighting all on his own. I would, ordinarily, tear into the use of backing tracks – two and a half hours of them is a bit much, even if the quartet’s vocals were in fine form. But there was no mention of there being a band, let alone a musical director and orchestra, so there’s no let down to speak of.
The weakness is mine rather than anyone else’s, but nonetheless I am reaching saturation point with hearing tunes from The Greatest Showman. But, like the British weather, this was one of those concerts where nothing lasted for very long – and there was very little that was unfamiliar here to those who likes their musical theatre. It was all there, really. There were blasts from the past, including ‘River Deep Mountain High’ from The Commitments, which Sexton was in when it played in the West End, and ‘Gethsemane’ from Jesus Christ Superstar. Both Fowler and Gordon had entered the 2012 ITV show ‘Superstar’, a series in which Lloyd Webber set out to find someone to play Jesus in an arena tour, a casting process by public telephone vote that was eventually won by Ben Forster.
Tunes from musicals that West End theatre audiences are looking forward to were featured too, notably numbers from Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress, with Sexton putting in a poignant rendering of ‘She Used To Be Mine’ from the latter. A couple of tunes from Rent, and a big finish in the form of ‘One Day More’ from Les Misérables were among showstopping crowd-pleasers. Oh, and then there were numbers from Bat Out of Hell The Musical: someone had apparently tweeted that they hadn’t seen Gordon play Strat despite several visits to Bat, and this was their chance to (sort of) rectify that. Some excellent banter between the actors added extra enjoyment to an already sparkling performance. Nobody asked me to participate in a raffle they had going, but some posters, a beanie hat and what looked like a rucksack from my vantage point went to some worthy winners. Worth the seven hour round trip? Yes, I’d say so.
Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the show first being performed live onstage, Britain’s favourite local radio station Radio Active is back once more on a tour of the UK. The original cast including Angus Deayton, Helen Atkinson Wood, Michael Fenton Stevens and Philip Pope reunited in 2016 at the Edinburgh Fringe, and again in 2018, performing some of their classic and best-loved radio scripts, and now they’re back and better than ever.
Born out of a small sketch show created during their years in the Oxford Revue, Radio Active was originally written by Deayton and the late Geoffrey Perkins. It continued to grow at a rapid pace, being adapted for BBC Radio 4 where it ran for 7 award-winning series – a total of 53 episodes from 1980 until 1987. The show then transformed into KYTV, the exciting BBC 2 television revival, and now it’s a live stage show!
Expect to be reunited with all of your favourite characters, including long suffering radio host Mike Channel, original foodie Anna Daptor, and the accident-prone Martin Brown, as well as the cast’s original musical creations, responsible for such parody bands as The Hee Bee Gee Bees and Status Quid.
Angus Deayton is perhaps best known as the presenter of Have I Got News For You, which he hosted for 23 series, along with Before They Were Famous, numerous New Year’s Eve Shows, and the first 3 series of Hell's Kitchen and Would I Lie To You. He's also starred in Rowan Atkinson’s Stage Show in the West End and on Broadway, and in sitcoms One Foot in the Grave, Pramface and Nighty Night. More recently he's appeared in Waterloo Road and Death In Paradise.
Michael Fenton Stevens is an English comedian and actor best known for being a founding member of The Hee Bee Gee Bees, as well as performing Spitting Image’s number one hit single The Chicken Song. His television credits include roles in My Family, Coronation Street, Outnumbered, Action Team and Ballot Monkeys and as Sir Henry in Benidorm.
Helen Atkinson Wood plays the loveable Mrs Miggins, a character created for her by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton in the classic comedy Blackadder The Third. Twice nominated Best Female Comedy Performer by The British Comedy Awards, she made her West End debut in Silly Cow by Ben Elton and now works extensively on stage, radio and television. Helen presented her own ITV series Private Lives and has made guest appearances on QI, Celebrity Pointless and Have I Got News For You.
Philip Pope starred in Who Dares Wins and Chelmsford 123, as well as hugely memorable guest appearances in Blackadder and Only Fools and Horses. More recently Philip has appeared in BBC’s The Life of Rock with Brian Pern, C4’s Ballot Monkeys and Benidorm on ITV . As a composer he wrote hit songs for The Hee Bee Gee Bees and Spitting Image (notably The Chicken Song), as well as for TV shows including Not The Nine O’Clock News, Whose Line is it Anyway?, The Fast Show, Harry & Paul, Outnumbered and Yonderland.
Wednesday 24th April The Radlett Centre, Hertfordshire
www.radlettcentre.co.uk/ / 01923 859291
Friday 26th April Bloomsbury Theatre, London
www.thebloomsbury.com/ / 020 3108 1000
Saturday 27th April Bloomsbury Theatre, London
www.thebloomsbury.com/ / 020 3108 1000
Tuesday 30th April The Stables, Milton Keynes
www.stables.org/ / 01908 280 800
Thursday 2nd May Bridge House Theatre, Warwick
www.bridgehousetheatre.co.uk/ / 01926 776438
Friday 3rd May Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishops Stortford
www.rhodesartscomplex.co.uk/ / 01279 710 200
Saturday 4th May Cornerstone, Didcot
www.cornerstone-arts.org/ / 01235 515144
Sunday 5th May Broadway, Letchworth
www.broadway-letchworth.com/ / 01462 681088
Thursday 9th May Artrix, Bromsgrove
www.artrix.co.uk/ / 01527 577330
Friday 10th May Savoy Theatre, Monmouth
www.monmouth-savoy.co.uk/ / (01600) 772467
Saturday 11th May McMillan Theatre, Bridgwater
www.mcmillantheatre.com/ / 01278 556677
Sunday 12th May Theatre Royal, Winchester
www.theatreroyalwinchester.co.uk/ / 01962 840 440
Wednesday 15th May Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne
www.tivoliwimborne.co.uk/ / 01202 885566
Thursday 16th May Electric Palace, Bridport
www.electricpalace.org.uk/ / 01308 424 901
Friday 17th May Corn Exchange, Exeter
www.exetercornexchange.co.uk/ / 01392 665938
Saturday 18th May Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington
www.theploughartscentre.org.uk/ / 01805 624624
Sunday 19th May Red House Theatre, Plymouth
Thursday 23rd May Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells
www.trinitytheatre.net/ /01892 678678
Friday 24th May Arts Centre, Colchester
www.colchesterartscentre.com/ / 01206 500900
Saturday 25th May Quarry Theatre, Bedford
www.quarrytheatre.org.uk/ / 01234 362337
Sunday 26th May Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh
www.aldeburghjubileehall.co.uk/ / 07980 748547
Thursday 30th May Courtyard, Hereford
www.courtyard.org.uk/ / 01432 340555
Friday 31st May The Theatre, Chipping Norton
www.chippingnortontheatre.com/ / 01608 642350
Saturday 1st June Norden Farm, Maidenhead
www.norden.farm/ / 01628 788997
Sunday 2nd June Quarterhouse, Folkestone
www.quarterhouse.co.uk/ / 01303 760750
A 1980s set goes with this 1980s play, with seemingly 1980s values. Coming Clean must be one of the few plays set in that era (“the action takes place,” the script tells the reader, “between April to October 1982”) devoid of any references to the Thatcher Government, let alone Thatcher-bashing. The walls are stained with the effects of cigarette smoke. Somewhere on YouTube (and indeed other places online) there are videos in which a group of teenagers are set the challenge of dialling a number using a rotary telephone. It’s hilarious for anyone old enough to remember them: here, the characters just get on with it. Greg (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge) even complains about someone ringing off after ‘only’ eight rings. And it would have been a genuine call as well, most likely, and not an automated call centre service ringing numbers even when there is no human available in said call centre.
As they sing in Bat Out of Hell The Musical, “It was long ago, it was far away / It was so much better than it is today.” When the gregarious (if slightly irritating) William (Elliot Hadley) is three hours late for an evening to mark the fifth anniversary of the relationship between Greg and Tony (Lee Knight, whose mum happened to be in the audience at the performance I attended), they only find out what happened when he finally does turn up. This sort of thing is all very real, all well within living memory, and is indicative of how life has become so radically different in the era of social media and the ubiquity of mobile telephony.
The time warp thing is not, of course, the salient point in this production, which is really about the consequences of having a relationship that is only too happy to function – thrive, even – with ‘friends with benefits’. Tony decides to get a cleaner in – both he and Greg are writers, and with Greg also teaching (presumably post-16, as he can’t understand why most of his students are even doing the course they have elected to do, such is their apathy), it falls to Tony to do whatever domestic chores can be done. Enter Robert (Tom Lambert), what the gay community would call a ‘twink’. The audience is given a health warning about nudity before the doors to the auditorium are opened: working out what happens is not exactly rocket science.
It is a sort of unwritten regulation, however, whether by default or by design (I couldn’t quite work out which) that Greg and Tony do not sleep with the same ‘other’, a rule broken when Robert, an actor who has taken on other jobs to pay the bills (oh! How certain things never change!), cultured and articulate, comes along. It’s left open-ended as to whether Greg and Tony’s relationship survives – though the lines of communication between them continue to flow, so I would have thought it would have done. There is a lot of acerbic humour in this play, in which actors are not well portrayed. The sort of abuse (gay-bashing, even) that William in particular encounters could feasibly have happened today, a generation later, in a supposedly more progressive and tolerant society: quite an indictment on today’s world. Worth seeing.
I didn’t know much about Reeve Carney, which is the main reason why I went along to his solo show in London, the first one he’s ever done in this city. I found myself sat amongst people who had listened to his album, ‘Youth Is Wasted’, winner of the 2018 Independent Music Award for ‘Best Album – Adult Contemporary’, over and over again, probably knowing the lyrics as well as he does. I had, and still don’t, haven’t a clue about ‘Penny Dreadful’, apparently a television horror series (as Ariana Grande puts it, ‘thank u, next’), and had only the National Theatre production Carney was in, Hadestown, thanks to a number of hearty recommendations from friends and acquaintances, who rated that show very highly. Carney will transfer with the show to Broadway (I would rather it had a West End transfer, but then I would, wouldn’t I?).
A concert like his is best understood by those who have some familiarity (beyond said NT show) with his career to date. An example. What seemed to me like a random inclusion of a Rocky Horror Show number was, for those in the know, an unsubtle reference to Carney playing Riff Raff in a 2016 film called The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again, a picture which apparently had an identical plot to the 1975 one. Carney, like many a successful performer, has certain fans who follow him wherever he goes in the world – here, one of them started assuming an instrumental introduction was going to lead into a cover of Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’, to the point where she started singing it, much to the audience’s amusement. Carney got the last laugh, though: having left his setlist for the second half behind in his dressing room, post-interval proceedings were accomplished by way of playing whatever songs in his back catalogue felt right. So, our lady in the audience having hijacked a song, he quickly changed what he was playing into something else. Ha!
It’s that sort of assured confidence that makes for a mesmerising performance. Performing without his band, (un)imaginatively called Carney, it falls to, um, Carney to rely on technology to provide the desired soundscape for his songs. So, he’s completely on his own on stage, with no backing singers, pressing pedals with his feet (some sort of recording/playback device or other) in the process of making music. He’s remarkably talented, singing his own material (aside from the odd cover here and there), and playing multiple instruments, from a kazoo to The Other Palace Studio’s resident Steinway piano. The trusty guitar is his usual instrument of choice, however, and his setups for each song are meticulous. He’ll tune and tune and tune that guitar until it sounds absolutely, positively, unequivocally, p-e-r-f-e-c-t, and then and only then will the song begin. The result, every time, is nothing short of sublime.
Such is Carney’s passion and commitment to the music he creates that even this repeated process of not settling for ‘that will do’ but striving for the very best never gets dull, not least because he is aware of his audience, and thus engages in banter and a few asides. He seems to go into a trance-like state once a song gets going properly, and the live versions of his melodious tunes are very much extended versions. (He really should do a ‘live’ album.) Some of his lyrics are steeped in religion, or rather personal faith. In one, ‘Think of You’, he references St John’s Gospel, chapter XIV, verse VI: “You are the Way, the Truth and the Life / I’ll follow You”. Others follow a more mainstream lyrical path about personal feelings for a lover. Stretching himself to the limit both vocally and instrumentally, it was all very soulful, if unusual: this was a novel experience that will not be soon forgotten.
Luke Bayer, for the relatively uninitiated, like yours truly, started young. There’s a photo of him as a teenager on ‘The X-Factor’, in which he’s clearly in distress, that still does the rounds. At the time, the Daily Mail, perhaps predictably, was unimpressed. Apparently siding with Luke and other contestants, an opinion piece thundered, “Simon Cowell and his team have taken the provision of low grade entertainment to new depths of manipulation and callousness”, dismissing the Saturday night reality television music competition as “emotional exploitation at its most cynical”.
Luke (first name terms, you understand, as he’s so warm and likeable – loveable, even – that calling him ‘Bayer’ just feels, as he would put it, ‘ridiculous’) has done well for himself since then. I’d only seen him live once before, at a performance of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie on Shaftesbury Avenue, a show I’d wanted to go back to having seen it in its previous incarnation at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. In the opinion of WhatsOnStage’s Alun Hood, Luke’s portrayal of the lead role of Jamie New topped even that of the sublime John McCrea.
Now, John might have won the 2018 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical if Hamilton hadn’t dominated across the board (and with justification, to be honest) – he did, at least, pick up the WhatsOnStage Award that year in the same category. Anyway, when I saw the show again, the audience roared and roared their approval at the end, and it took several rounds of Luke putting his forefinger to his lips before we would even let him finish the final number. Not your typical Monday night audience reaction.
I was only seeing him in his own show, his second visit to Live at Zedel, because a friend was too unwell to attend. I like to think I was, in effect, personally invited (albeit at the last minute) and what fun was had. The truth of the matter was that Luke had sold out before I’d gotten around to booking. There’s already talk of ‘Zedel Round Three’, though at the very least he’ll have to do more than one performance in order to not disappoint too many people who are bound to be met with the dreaded words ‘Sold Out’. Or just book a larger venue.
There’s a very natural and easygoing nature about Luke. Perhaps a more up-close-and-personal performance venue like Zedel helps. The audience rapport is brilliant, and while most performers would let minor infractions pass uncommented, Luke seemed to revel in pointing them out (though the thing about a younger man ‘tripping over’ is that he’s up again before he ever even went down). This in turn, paradoxically, made him all the more endearing, and while I can only imagine putting on one’s own show would be quite a nerve-racking experience, I could sense the audience willing him on however ‘clumsy’ things got.
I’m reliably informed there was more of a narrative the first time Luke took to the stage at Zedel. On this occasion, the music and lyrics did most of the talking, and with an impressive array of guest singers, there was a lot to get through. A three-piece band glides through the many and varied numbers – ranging from a duet version with Natalie Paris of a song from Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ Six to a tune from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, sung with elegance by Les Misérables’ Amara Okereke. It is also worth mentioning an 18-year-old winner of an online competition Luke held to sing with him on stage, and Guildford School of Acting finalists Martha Kirby, Danielle Fiamanya and Cameron Burt, whom Luke was at pains to refer to as ‘friends’, nothing less and nothing more.
Luke’s last ‘Jamie’ dates have been confirmed, and then what? All we can do is wait and see. But I suspect it won’t be long before he’s ‘out of the darkness, into the spotlight’ again.
Why exactly is Songs for Nobodies called Songs for Nobodies? After all, the likes of Judy Garland (1922-1969), Patsy Cline (1932-1963), Edith Piaf (1915-1963), Billie Holliday (1915-1959) and Maria Callas (1923-1977) are hardly ‘nobodies’, even if there is now a generation of people – and I must, for better or for worse, include myself in this – who were born after these lady singers had passed. Of course, I quickly realised that the show is called Songs for Nobodies, not Songs Sung By Nobodies, so clearly the ‘nobodies’ must refer to people other than the singers.
Five characters are introduced, one by one, a monologue by an apparent ‘nobody’. By the end of the show, to be honest, I found the whole ‘nobodies’ thing a tad insulting. Beatrice Ethel Appleton, for instance, is described as a lavatory attendant, while Pearl Avalon, whose story follows Appleton’s, is an usher at a concert venue (if I recall correctly) who also has ambitions of being a professional singer. Why would such occupations make these people ‘nobodies’? Aside from being fictional characters, the suspension of disbelief at the front door of the theatre, and the way in which their stories are told by Bernadette Robinson, in quite some detail, suggests that far from being ‘nobodies’, they were capable people who made a difference to their communities and those they interacted with. Nobodies? Pah! I shall let the feminists have a field day with the implications of calling hard-working, law-abiding women ‘nobodies’. (Would they have been nobodies if they had been men? Discuss.)
And breathe. This isn’t so much a play as a series of disconnected sketches, accompanied by songs. Robinson is extraordinary in putting across the styles and mannerisms of the different singers, demonstrating excellent versatility. I thought she did Piaf better than anyone else. An Australian performer, Robinson puts in a near-perfect British accent when playing the part of Edie Belamotte, who told a remarkable story about her father’s escape from the Third Reich thanks to the quick-thinking actions of Piaf after a concert she gave to some Second World War Troops.
The band is led by Greg Arrowsmith, with only two other musicians, Matthew Whittington and Oliver Weston. Both the acting and singing skills on Robinson’s part are abundantly evident, though I found myself rather disengaged with the narratives, which were mostly of people in awe of whichever singer it is that their story is related to. This gave the play as a whole a relentlessly positive bias. Given the fictional nature of the stories, it would have varied the tone of the show to have at least one person who perhaps didn’t particularly enjoy every aspect of a given singer’s personality and back catalogue but, thanks to common decency and civility, respected them as human beings and treated them well regardless of their personal views.
As a performance, though, there’s nothing to complain about. It’s a little too much of a slow burner for my personal taste, but with simple yet effective staging and an immensely talented performer, songs from a previous generation come alive, afresh and anew, in a delightful ninety-minute foray into the past.
Empty vessels make the most noise, but that isn’t a universal principle, as an emotive and passionate concert from rising star Christina Bennington demonstrated during two sold-out concerts (albeit to a small venue) just 48 hours after the ‘final act’ of Bat Out of Hell The Musical, something she managed to refrain from mentioning for all of twenty minutes (if that). No matter: it was that show that really put Bennington on the map, so to speak, and on both sides of the Atlantic, in a production of Bat (there are others) that started life in Manchester before heading to the capital, and then to Toronto and back.
It’s already becoming a bit of a cliché to say that Bennington has remarkable versatility as an actor, singer and dancer – there are, of course, many actors whose industry deems them to be ‘triple threats’, which I find a bit of a misnomer on most occasions (and Miss Bennington is no exception), because on meeting such people, one discovers that they aren’t very threatening at all. The audiences at Live at Zédel were treated to a teeny-weeny bit of dancing, as much as the small performance space would allow (that is, not very much at all, and it wasn’t so much dancing as swaying). For a venue whose performances usually have just a piano for a performer’s accompaniment, the musical director for these gigs, Noam Galperin, did well to have guitars and percussion as well.
You wouldn’t have thought so, or at least I wouldn’t have anyway, but the inclusion of musical numbers from Bat Out of Hell The Musical proved a little divisive amongst members of the audience. For some, it was a case of ‘too soon’, and brought back memories of a show that had only closed days before, and for others (like me), it would have been rather odd not to have acknowledged that chapter in Bennington’s career to date in some form. Thus, proceedings ended with ‘Heaven Can Wait’ and ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’. And partway through the first half, ‘Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)’, excised from Bat fairly early on but revived for the show’s final night, made another appearance.
Ably supported by Dan Buckley (Eugenius, Jest End, The Book of Mormon) and Danielle Steers (Bat Out of Hell The Musical, Beautiful – the Carole King Musical, The Bodyguard) the evening was an eclectic mix, including an Avril Lavigne tune (with which I could not claim any familiarity with at all) to ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (which I must have heard dozens of times before by various sopranos) to an Irish folk tune. As one would expect from an ‘up close and personal’ show, some stories and anecdotes from childhood to the present day were sprinkled throughout the evening’s proceedings. The storytelling is as much of a spectacle as the singing. As it used to be said at the Dominion Theatre, “Wow, that’s beautiful. You have such a way with words.
“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.”
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
Gio and 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”.
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.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.