Southwark Playhouse, London, Saturday 24th January, 2015
Having heard the original cast recording over a decade ago, I have been eagerly anticipating seeing a production of this quirky musical by Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming and Laurence O’Keefe ever since. Today I finally got my chance.
Southwark Playhouse is suitably cavernous for this tale of a creature discovered in a cave. Shaped like a human but behaving like a wild animal, ‘Bat Boy’ is taken in by the local vet’s family, despite the other small-town (read: small-minded) folk wishing him destroyed like an unwanted pet or mad dog. The story has much in common with Edward Scissorhands – Bat Boy learns the ways of the world through home education and also through hard knocks received at the hands of supposedly civilised people. Rob Compton in the title role gives an astounding performance: his movements are animalistic: chiropteran, yes, but he also waddles around like a naked baby bird. Educated and tamed, he is as well-spoken as Niles Crane, and can belt out the musical numbers in an expressive pop-rock voice.
Laurence O’Keefe’s score combines pop and rock with musical theatre – and there are some amusing disco touches. His lyrics are also wittily rhymed – there is not a duff number in the piece.
Stewart Charlesworth’s dual-level set, with a huge screen on its upper level and scenery on trucks, allows the action to move quickly between locations – and there are some hilarious moments involving some inept puppetry to suggest the scale of the underground caverns. Charlesworth’s colourful costume designs can be described as redneck chic, with some delightfully fake-looking wigs by Sam Cox.
Director Luke Fredericks has a comic-book, schlocky approach: the characterisations are larger-than-life to match the tabloid sensationalism of the plot. Video clips are put to effective use – especially when the story of Bat Boy’s origins is at last revealed. It’s a very funny show indeed.
The ensemble cast is top notch. Simon Bailey’s evangelist preacher is a hoot – and so is his Mrs Taylor. Lindsay Scigliano makes for a powerful leader of the town council, while doubling up as teenager Roy. Lauren Ward is excellent as vet’s wife Meredith, who forms a bond with the strange creature, while Georgina Hagen as daughter Shelley is both funny and sweet, growing up as Bat Boy – now called Edgar – becomes more humanised. Matthew White is also strong as the town vet and the piece’s villain, Dr Parker – but everyone is on point; the comic business of the townsfolk doesn’t miss a trick in this detailed and relentlessly amusing show. Nolan Frederick puts in a surprise appearance in drag as ‘Mother Nature’ while Russell Wilcox’s sheriff strives to be the voice of reason as the town ignites with vitriolic and vengeful scapegoating.
At the heart of it is the question of what makes us human, and what makes us less than human, when we allow our baser instincts to take over. Edgar the Bat Boy is differently human and elicits our sympathy. The townsfolk of Hope Falls, West Virginia, are all-too disappointingly human in their revulsion, their rejection and their bloodlust against someone who is ‘other’.
Bat Boy is immense fun, and dramatically satisfying in its sensationalism and silliness; it’s a crazy cartoon of a musical that deserves a wider audience and a longer run.