Review: Batman Live

SciFiNow hits the opening night of the Batman stage show at the MEN Arena

Details: Touring the UK until October, get your tickets here.
Director: Anthony Van Laast (creative director), James Powell (co-director)
Cast: Nick Court,  Sam Heughen, Mark Frost, Kamran Darabi-Ford, Michael Pickering, Alex Giannini.

Given Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark was trashed by critics when it made its Broadway debut amid a web of mishaps, sackings, jokes and endless previews, pressure was surely heaped on the directors of Batman Live to prove that comic book heroes really can translate well to the stage.

Where Spider-Man seemingly failed with a lavishly expensive, ungainly mess devoid of personality, Batman Live succeeds by winking heavily towards the pows and kabooms of the cult Sixties television series. And yet it strays away from merely paying homage to the caped crusader of past imaginations, even though the influence of the comic books is strong.

Batman has been subjected to numerous reboots over the years and this show brings another fresh twist, adding to the many comic books, animations, television series, videogames and multi-million dollar film productions, yet doing something so obvious that you wonder why it has not been done before: making it live. While there is no suggestion that Bruce Wayne’s alter ego is going to join the pantheon of the globe’s greatest musicals, last night world’s premiere in Manchester certainly showed it is far from a tortured curiosity.

Most stark is the roll of characters involving pretty much every bat-crazy inhabitant of Gotham City, set in front of a huge comic-book video screen on which pages turn to reveal the next scenario or narrative drive. With so many freaks, there is always a danger that some become rather bit-part oddities, mere fodder for the impressively choreographed twists and turns of the fight scenes in which the hero must tirelessly engage.

To some extent, that is the case with a few characters not quite being given enough space to breathe – The Riddler springs to mind – but that cannot be said of the Joker, a hard part to play given the prominence in people’s minds of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger and, not forgetting, Mark Hamill who has so superbly voiced this most manic of villians in the recent games and animations. There can be no complaints here, however, with a jack-in-the-box performance of surprises that even involves a magic trick or two accompanied by the ever-delicious Harley Quinn.

What is also heartening is the centre-framing of Batman who isn’t, for once, totally outshone by the bad guys – although watch out for the amazing Scarecrow – and like a good comic book hero he is human one frame, superhuman the next, root-worthy in both, gaining a huge cheer on his first floating appearance (“I’m Batman”, he says. “Yeah!” shouts an audience member to laughter and applause).

The well-trodden back stories are there with an emphasis on the death of Robin’s parents and his resulting lust for revenge-cum-justice. The second half of the show pushes the plot forward and has more than a whiff of the Batman: Arkham Asylum videogame to it peppered with some amazing Joker-flavoured set designs. Oh, and the Batmobile, of course. Phwoar.

There is an uplifting, spectacular, bright gloss throughout the night but most of all there is an all-pervading sense of fun, humour, knowing nods and the best shots at the right moments. And for a brash spectacular like this, it is all you can wish for.