Adapted by the Birmingham Stage Company from David Walliams’s best-selling children’s book, “Gangsta Granny” concerns an 11-year-old boy whose pet hate is having to spend Friday nights with his boring (and flatulent) old grandma. Its chief life lessons are: Never judge a granny by her housecoat; middle-aged parents are stupid but well-intentioned; and even Queen Elizabeth II occasionally passes wind.
I would like to make it clear that I also saw serious musicals with social consciences. They memorably included the scalding “Nina — a Story About Me and Nina Simone” (which I caught at the Young Vic before its transfer to the Traverse Theater in Edinburgh), Josette Bushell-Mingo’s passionate account of Simone’s life and the legacy of enduring American racism. And at Wyndham’s Theater in the West End, I revisited “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” (seen on Broadway in 2014), with the Tony-winning champ Audra McDonald, as Billie Holiday, demonstrating to London audiences why she is probably the most talented person on this planet.
These performances bring theatergoers to tears through the expression of their subjects’ deeply felt, ultimately unconquerable pain, which both maimed and inspired them. If you find yourself crying at “Adrian Mole,” it’s partly because the agonies of its title character are as temporary as they are intense.
Ms. Townsend’s 1982 novel, which begot seven sequels (and various previous stage, television and radio adaptations), is dear to the hearts of Britons who came of age in the Thatcher era. Written by Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, and directed by Luke Sheppard, “Adrian Mole” presents an adolescent protagonist who is both a product of his time and place and (as if often true of his age group) frequently oblivious to them.
Pimples, school dress codes, the ravishing and seemingly unobtainable new girl at school and the parents who fail to understand his intellectual aspirations: Such are the preoccupations of our Adrian, whose daily confidences to his diary frame the show.
Unlike Ms. Townsend’s book, this musical allows us to experience the point of view of other characters, including Adrian’s restless mum (Kelly Price), who is having an affair with her next door neighbor (a hilarious John Hopkins, who doubles as a gargoyle school principal); Adrian’s lager-loving dad (Dean Chisnall) and a husband-poaching good-time gal (Lara Denning). These are all dexterous performances, though they would probably be even funnier if the show saw their characters through Adrian’s eyes.
It’s when the younger ensemble members (who rotate in the leading parts) take charge that the show triumphs. Such sequences include a red-sock-wearing student rebellion that pays homage to the barricades of “Les Miserables” and a priceless reworking of the Nativity story for the school Christmas pageant. The terrifically talented Benjamin Lewis, the Adrian I saw, radiated a sweet and incandescent solipsism, untainted by hipster irony, that befits a lad who is after all the star of his own life.
The hero of “Bat Out of Hell,” directed with technological sturm und drang by the American Jay Scheib, is also irony-free, but in the mode of a heavily emoting lover from grand opera. His name is Strat, and he is played with beguiling epicene virility and lungs of steel by the willowy Andrew Polec. Strat is the leader of a gang of resourceful street urchins known as the Lost, a tribe frozen for eternity at the age of 17.
The Lost rove the futurist city of Obsidian, which was formerly Manhattan. Jon Bausor’s dystopian set is a blasted landscape of blackened earth, derelict machinery and a whole lot of surveillance cameras (Finn Ross is the video designer), a favorite tool of Mr. Scheib’s.
Obsidian is ruled by the evil tycoon Falco (Rob Fowler), whose beautiful daughter, Raven (Christina Bennington), inevitably falls in love with Strat. Falco’s lair is a chandeliered penthouse in a building that looks suspiciously like Trump Tower. Oh no! Is topicality rearing its unwelcome head?
Whew! Though Falco may initially register as a nasty tyrant, whose favorite pastime is capturing and torturing the Lost, it turns out he’s just grumpy because of marital problems with his luscious wife, Sloane (Sharon Sexton). Nothing that a good roll in the obsidian can’t cure.
Most of the songs in “Bat Out of Hell” are from the 1977 Meat Loaf album of the same title and were written by Mr. Steinman, whose other theater credits include the notorious “Dance of the Vampires.” Meat Loaf classics like “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” are performed with high adrenaline and at higher volume, as motorcycles roar, artificial bats fly, flames reach skyward and a car crashes into the orchestra pit.
It’s all loud and flashy enough to make the many theatergoers I saw at the Coliseum who had passed 40 (never mind 17) put aside their middle-aged blues to rock out in their black leather and bat T-shirts. For a couple of sense-numbing hours, they could believe that the grown-ups who make a mess of the world are a distant and adversarial breed, and that the biggest problem on earth is an older generation’s inability to understand what it means to be in love.
Continue reading the main story