Thursday, January 15, 2015

'Bat Boy the Musical' at the Southwark Playhouse, 14th January 2014

Forget war in Yugoslavia, presidential elections and economic turmoil, in 1992 one headline stood head and shoulders above the rest: 'BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE'. The front page showed a screaming, befanged, bug-eyed, pointy-eared child. A star was born!

Of course, the newspaper with the scoop was (now sadly defunct) The Weekly World News, so perhaps the factual accuracy of the story was a bit... iffy. But in the face of such a compelling discovery who cares about silly little things like the truth? Since his discovery the WWN kept its readers closely informed as to what this mysterious Bat Boy was up to, including running for political office, aiding in the capture of Saddam Hussein, endorsing first John McCain and then Barack Obama for President and most recently protesting in favour of gay marriage in California.

His bizarre fame growing, it was inevitable that stage boards would one day lightly creak to the weight of bat-feet. And so it was that in 2001 Bat Boy the Musical opened off-Broadway in New York, followed by a six month London run in the Shaftesbury Theatre in 2004.  Now, after nearly ten years, it returns in all its demented, trashy glory.

The musical tells the tragic, jumbled and outrageous tale of the Bat Boy (Rob Compton). We open in his lair; the damp depths of a forgotten cave system. Provoked he attacks some dumb teenagers, resulting in his capture and delivery to the house of local vet Dr Parker (Matthew White). His wife Meredith (Lauren Ward) immediately begins caring for this disturbed, helpless individual and she's soon joined by her initially sceptical teenage daughter Shelley (Georgina Hagen).

But dark things are afoot in the small town of Hope Falls (soon to be Hope Fails). The cattle the town relies on are mysteriously dropping dead and the ones still alive aren't in particularly good shape either. Bat Boy becomes the scapegoat for their problems, despite the fact that Meredith's love and care has transformed him into an erudite yet naive young man. Even Shelley has begun to look beyond the fangs, hairless head and pointy ears and noticed something rather hunky about this Bat Boy...

The basic story of a 'freak' being introduced to suburbia, briefly embraced then demonised owes an awful lot to Edward Scissorhands. For much of the first act Bat Boy the Musical hews suspiciously close to Tim Burton's classic film, to the point where you get an inkling that you've seen this story done before (and better). But after the slightly humdrum first act things pick up a bit, plunging headfirst into demented horror-comedy that feels like The Jerry Springer Show by way of Ed Wood.

This style, 'Tabloid Gothic', sends us down a twisty tunnel full of gruesome murders, mad doctors, bestial love potions, burning bodies and incestuous union. Though still roughly predictable there's enough John Waters style bad taste glee to keep the audience in a perpetual state of eyebrow-raising at whatever crazy wrinkle in the plot will crop up next. Anyway, it's difficult not to enjoy a musical where the lead strolls onto the stage midway through devouring a severed cow's head.

Nearly all of the show's success rests on the the hunched shoulders of Rob Compton's Bat Boy, who from a technical and performative standpoint is the obvious centrepiece. The excellent prosthetics mean that we unquestioningly accept him as real the moment we come across him. The thin latex that allows him to be illuminated from behind, the high spotlight causing them to glow either side of his head. His fangs are impressively realistic too, predatory and dangerous, but never in the way of his performance.

And boy what a performance. Channelling the hunched physicality of Andy Serkis' Gollum, the midnight sinisterness of Murnau's Nosferatu and later, a smidge of the effete, snooty intellectual, Bat Boy is fascinating to watch.  As he scuttles and scrabbles around the stage Compton's shoulder blades slice the air like dorsal fins, suggesting wings about to sprout from within. Even when he's upright and besuited there's an air of the alien to him, his body moving around under the clothes with muted sexual awkwardness. The rest of the cast are no slouches (I particularly enjoyed Simon Bailey's travelling preacher), but it's the Bat Boy we're here to see, and at least here the show delivers in spades. 

It's not all peaches and cream though, the songs are mostly uninspired and oddly produced. There's a low-fi plasticky quality to the sound system that doesn't so much get toes tapping as it does necks straining to decipher what's being sung. On the odd occasion it finally comes together; Let Me Walk Among You is beautifully written, scored and performed. On the flipside, regrettable incursions into rap and what sound like MIDI guitars made my ears quiver in annoyance.

There's also never quite nailed down tone: the audience is never quite sure whether we should caring about the characters or giggling at their demises.Bat Boy himself is straightforwardly sympathetic, but a lot of the gags are are based around sniggering at small town stereotypes whose misery and gruesome deaths are the height of hilarity. This is, I suppose, the essence of tabloid rubbernecking and so appropriate for a show adapted from a supermarket checkout rag, but it makes it very difficult to care about what's happening even though we're apparently supposed to. There's also the odd dud joke: the OTT panto drag feels a bit desperate and the comedy rape is questionable at best.

Bat Boy the Musical isn't exactly a bad show. If your desire is to see a half boy/half bat then this delivers in spades. But there's a big bushel of things that don't quite run as smoothly as they could. Perhaps these are inherent to the show as written, perhaps it's due to seeing it early in the run or maybe its partly the staging (relegating key exposition to a video projection feels a touch lazy). But despite the frequent stumbles, wobbles and trips the show stays on its feet and just about squeaks into entertaining.

Bat Boy the Musical is at the Southwark Playhouse until 31st January.  Tickets here.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'Bat Boy the Musical' at the Southwark Playhouse, 14th January 2014”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights