As the cast of
The whole thing loudly screams ‘KITSCH’ in your face and then French-kisses you to make the point hit home.
This new production of Bat Boy: The Musical, directed by Luke Fredericks for Morphic Grafitti and choreographed by Joey McKneely, has a month-long run at The Large at the Southwark Playhouse. The play tells the story of a young man, chanced upon by three siblings in a cave in Hope Falls, West Virginia, and quite bizarrely instantly recognized as a ‘Bat Boy.’ The boy is capture by the local sheriff after biting one of these adventurous siblings and sent to the local veterinarian Dr Parker, smack-bang in the middle of his family’s living room. Taken in by the family, the bat boy, or Edgar as he becomes known, tries to fit in with small-town America and finds that the ‘Christian charity’ they often sing about may not always be so forthcoming, particularly when there are cows dying and elections to be won. What follows is the age-old story about a monster struggling for acceptance in a world where monsters are not welcome. Inspired by an article run by American tabloid The Weekly World News, Bat Boy promises to be ‘a delicious twist on the modern day musical comedy.’ I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, and and instead say it is definitely aiming to do something different but I’m not sure the director knew what. What we are left with is a mixed bag of bizarre scenes, over-the-top performances and a lot of different musical numbers in an evening of peculiar entertainment.
The world we are placed in bears some resemblance to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, asks for a similar amount of suspension of disbelief, and has the same uneven tone. But where Lynch’s work blends melodrama, surrealism and horror, this production falls short by comparison. There is an undeniable patchwork-quality to this piece that is reflected in every part of production. Cultural references abound, often in quite an irritating way. The introduction to the play through the use of the famous-scrolling Star Wars text for example seemed incredibly gimmicky and lazy, though no doubt supposed to be hilariously self-referential – and perhaps a nod towards some slightly unsettling and completely irresolvable incest later on. In the same way, the setting generally is quite strange: a well-made set for the Parker’s home contrasts to the oddly 90s animation on the backdrop screen. From the get-go, everything is so ludicrously over-the-top or seemingly quite cheesey, that, as an audience member, you don’t really know what you are watching, and probably don’t want to ask. The musical numbers, a whopping 17, come relentlessly, the costumes are colourful, and the wigs are cheerful and looked in some cases, particularly cheap. The whole thing loudly screams ‘KITSCH’ in your face and then French-kisses you to make the point hit home.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some very good performances. The stand-out was Lauren Ward as Meredith Parker, the all-American mom with a secret. Not only did she have an incredible voice but she played Meredith with real sweetness, and was very convincing as a woman trying to do right by someone she loves. Georgina Hagen, as her daughter Shelley, played the moody teenager falling in love very well. The scenes between Ward and Hagen were delightful and their musical numbers were great, particularly the very funny ‘Three Bedroom House’ in the second act. The pair seemed to work very well together in both the intersecting, fast-paced dialogue and in the harmonies their songs demanded. Choreographer Joey McKneely does definitely deserve some praise, particularly for the work done on the movements of the Bat Boy, played by Rob Compton. Together, the two managed to really suggest the strangeness of this character and Compton manages to twist himself into some uncomfortable-looking and precarious positions. Compton generally did a great job, playing Edgar firstly as a strange, animalistic beast, and then becoming a rather adorable English gent, reminiscent of an Oxford student from the 1930s. I did find him sweet in spite of my general reservations and scientific validity of anything else that was going on.
It was a shame when Dr Parker, the veterinarian and weird-o bad guy was introduced into the mix. Matthew White’s performance was far too much for even a play as over-the-top as this. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to acclaimed actor, William H. Macy, it seemed that White had taken this likeness a little too close to heart, and gave an incredibly intense performance that appeared transported from an entirely different play. A difficult relationship with his wife and a science experiment gone wrong were supposed to explain his almost schizophrenic changes throughout the two acts. In a play about a boy raised in a cave that can sing and dance, he was by far the strangest thing in it.
I did however, find myself feeling more cheerful in the second act, settling in to the Hope Falls world, asking less questions, and allowing it to wash (loudly) over me – though it must be said, a beer during the interval also helped. It starts with an excellent musical number ‘A Joyful Noise’ led by Simon Bailey as the Reverend Hightower. Though up until now the whole production has been pretty overblown, Bailey is really excellently over-the-top, capturing that unique madness found in (probably unfairly stereotyped) Baptist priests. But just as I had found myself enjoying the play, the climatic revelation of the Bat Boy’s true heritage made me feel extraordinarily uncomfortable. I will not reveal any plot twists (and there really is only this one and it’s quite clear from the beginning what it will be) but suffice it to say it involved a drug-induced rape and bestiality. Ward, in her skilled way, performed this monologue with gusto, but these disturbing plot points were directed with far too light a touch.
This tonal issue is something that the play did struggle with; moving from comedic numbers to some quite dark stuff is no mean feat, and unfortunately, the play does struggle with allowing any of real pathos it perhaps hoped to illicit. Moreover, it is simply quite confusing; it was quite difficult as an audience member to work out how I was supposed to be reacting to what I was seeing. Generally, the play was very tight, clearly very well-rehearsed, and everyone in the supporting cast could sing and dance. Unfortunately, the plot is thin and it is all quite headache-inducing. If you can completely suspend your disbelief so that being able to figure out what is going on no longer matters, then it is a perfectly entertaining evening at the theatre. However, I came away feeling unsure, and because of the ending, more than a little uncomfortable.