Batman’s had many media incarnations, from the camp TV show of the 60s to Chris Nolan’s grungey noughties reboot. In between we’ve had radio and animated versions – but we’ve never had a Batman that trod the boards. Until now.
Batman Live opened at Manchester’s MEN Arena last night – the first of a 55 date tour that will visit Newcastle, Glasgow, Sheffield, Birmingham, London, Liverpool, Nottingham, Dublin and Belfast.
It was quite a show.
Let’s get the weak part out of the way first – the story. Wisely sidestepping the Batman origin tales told in Tim Burton’s 80s Batman and again in Batman Begins, Batman Live chooses instead to offer an interpretation of Robin’s debut. This is mixed with a lunatics-taking-over-the-asylum plot strand that borrows most from the critically acclaimed game, and Warner Bros property, Batman: Arkham Asylum.
It’s old ground, well trodden for seasoned Bat-fans. But the narrative’s not what Batman Live is for. Batman Live is all about spectacle.
Thirty minutes into the first half, I had a moment of revelation. By that stage we’d already seen the Flying Graysons, half a dozen iconic supervillains, Commissioner Gordon (complaining how much he hated clowns to titters from the more knowing members of the audience) and a particularly striking Catwoman. In scene after scene, performers flipped and tumbled, descended on ropes, flew on wires and somersaulted through hoops suspended from the rafters.
What I was watching was, in effect, Batman – The Circus. The early scenes served to support a series of ever more spectular stunts, dance and wire work, giving way to some incredible pyrotechnics, conjuring and set dressing in the darker second half of the show.
And that’s no bad thing at all.
With consultancy from the critically acclaimed Circus Space, the decision to choose Dick Grayson’s transition to Robin makes perfect sense. The tragic demise of the trapeze artist family forms a perfect narrative to build this big top Batman adaptation around.
The Manchester audience were clearly entertained by the mix of simple story, slick execution and Batman’s greatest hits. It’s no spoiler to tell you that several key entrances, from those of the Bat-bloke himself through to the first appearance of a costumed Robin and even (an incredibly impressive) Batmobile were milked to the max, and met with boisterous cheers from around the arena.
There are missteps, naturally. Some of the fight scenes lacked a little punch (bad pun intended). Batman’s Burton-era inspired costume seemed to weigh the actor down, reducing the nimble crime-fighter to a lumbering lunk in a suit of armour. More than once he became caught up in his cape as the action piled up. It’s tough, too, to pick out performances for praise because, to be frank, any fine nuances there may have been were entirely lost in the cavernous arena.
But these were minor gripes in a show packed with superb set pieces. And here, we should give a special mention to the fantastic use of computer animation and big screen work, that brought alive a sparse and cleverly designed set.
I guess what comic book fans reading this want to know is whether this is a show for them. That’s hard to say. It’s clear that the kids were delighted by a storyline and characterisation that drew more heavily from the 80s movies (including a bombastic Elfman-style score), and the more recent animated adventures, than Nolan or Miller’s darker interpretation. It’s an event that’s clearer targeted at a more mainstream audience – at small children and their parents. It’s no surprise to find names among the creative team associated with big, touring theatre productions like Mamma Mia and Les Miserables.
But having said that, there was one moment that demonstrated Batman Live has the capacity to draw in more ardent followers of the Dark Knight. A moment where Bruce Wayne, centerstage, stridently reveals to Dick Grayson that he is Batman.
“I am Batman,” Wayne carefully and assertively tells his young ward. And somewhere in the auditorium, a middle aged man could clearly be heard shouting out “YES!”
And the audience, all 20,000 of them, applauded him.