Bat Boy: The Musical continues at the Southwark Playhouse, London until 31 January.
2 stars **
After a 2014 in which Southwark Playhouse played host to both In the Heights and Dogfight – two musicals that showed that the Fringe is capable of providing entertainment on a par with, if not better than, the West End – one could hope that its first big musical opening of 2015 would continue that run. Sadly, despite a book and score that has much potential and spirited performances from its core cast members, Bat Boy: The Musical brings expectations back down to earth with an over-amplified, caricature-laden, clumsy bump.
Based around a fanciful tale from US publication The Weekly World News, a paper which created fake news stories years before the internet made fictional journalism an art form, Bat Boy tells the tale of a disfigured foundling boy discovered in a West Virginia cave who seems to have been raised by bats. Despite calls for him to be put down after he bites one of the teenagers who discover him, the local veterinarian’s family take him in, gradually turning the feral young boy into a well-spoken, educated young man who yearns to be free of his appetite for blood.
The book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, along with Laurence O’Keefe’s songs, use the fantasy elements of the story to provide a darkly humorous satire of small town American values, mixing the nature-versus-nurture debate with a look at how a community founded on religious belief can struggle to accept difference. Or at least, it should. Much of that is missing under Luke Fredericks’ direction, which turns the local townsfolk into a deranged collection of shrill, unlikeable (and often unintelligible) caricatures that one hopes will fall prey to their vampiric interloper well before the close of Act I. Bad wigs, worse costumes and appalling drag performances go for the cheap and easy laughs where a more astute hand on the tiller would find much richer seams of comedy and tragedy.
It is to the credit of all the performers, from the ensemble upwards, that the whole evening is not totally wasted, with the majority of the plaudits going to the three core characters. Rob Compton’s titular Bat Boy – one part Nosferatu, one part Gollum and one part buffed-up gym bunny – is fearsome, fearful, brave, loving and aggressive to near perfection. Lauren Ward and Georgina Hagen, as the mother and daughter who take in the young man and civilise him with their love and attention, are similarly entrancing, gracing every scene with a determination to play their characters straight, and let the comedy derive from personality and character rather than preposterous caricature.
When these three are not sharing the stage with their fellow townsfolk, the musical finds itself elevated. Comedy numbers such as ‘Three Bedroomed House’, in which the women dream about moving away with their ward, sparkle in a way that shines a light on character. Conversely, earlier scenes where Ward’s mother entices Compton’s Bat Boy out of his cage with kindness and song (‘A Home For You’) is sweet, characterful and, thanks to the fine touches of the performers, amusing as well.
A bold attempt to use animated video projection to levels hitherto unseen in a Fringe production has to be commended. Unfortunately, some of the more dramatic, animalistic live action scenes are played out not on the higher of the set’s two levels, but on the floor where only the front row of the auditorium’s banked seating will ever get a decent view. It’s another poor choice in a show which is similarly marred throughout.