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BAT BOY – Southwark Playhouse, London.

Bat BoyLittle Shop of Horrors, The Rocky Horror Show and Evil Dead: the Musical are just a few examples of the schlock horror genre that can create an avid cult following among musical theatre fans. Bat Boy is a welcome addition to the list, not least because of its sporadic and troubled production history since premiering Off-Broadway in 2001.

After some success in New York and a keen following in regional US theatres, the musical valiantly struggled to find an audience in the West End. What was the problem? That no-one had heard of Bat Boy before? That the story, based on an article in Weekly World News, was deemed just too farfetched? Or maybe it was a classic lack of star names and recognisable tunes?

Fortunately, Morphic Graffiti have seen fit to give the show a second life in London: giving those of a curious nature the opportunity to answer some of those questions for themselves. Firstly, the story is very strong and Bat Boy himself is more interesting than the average musical outcast. He is surrounded by genuinely flawed personalities, some more obviously that others and the result is an intriguing cornucopia of ideas and themes. The fact that religion is used as a fundamental motive for every character is particularly pertinent given the events of the last week and Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, who wrote the book, cleverly allow the audience to keep an open mind as to the role religion plays in any eventual decisions.

There are several enjoyable twists in the plot; but none that would suggest any particular originality on the part of the show’s creators. However, a gentle use of comedy allows these moments to be hammed up enough to justify themselves; although they do leave the production with an obviously unanswered quandary: is Bat Boy a spoof or a serious story? Some elements of Luke Fredericks’ direction suggest that the show should be going down the pastiche route: cartoonish scenery, use of toys for live objects and an ensemble in badly fitting wigs and costumes. On the other hand, the family at the heart of the plot are played with real truth and Laurence O’Keefe’s music has some especially stirring moments.

The score dips its hand into a whole range of musical styles, but ends up having a fairly homogeneous modern musical theatre sound, little of which is worth remembering. This doesn’t help an audience understand the tone of the piece; a problem which is exacerbated by the split in performance style from the cast themselves. The ensemble work incredibly hard with myriad costume and character changes. However, the caricatures that they are caused to create never allow the audience to submit to any sense of genuine tension, drama or emotion. Simon Bailey is particularly caught in this trap as a grieving mother. He gets wonderful humour out of his reaction to the three deaths of his children; but this immediately removes any threat from the potential deaths of one of the core characters. At another point Nolan Frederick, dragged up as Mother Nature, gloriously stamps over what should be a beautiful tender moment for Bat Boy and his potential lover. The audience is happy to laugh, but consequently miss out on significant plot developments.

On the other side of the coin there is extraordinary work from the four central characters: Bat Boy (Rob Compton), Shelley (Georgina Hagen), Meredith (Lauren Ward) and Dr. Parker (Matthew White). These four have been directed as if they are in a completely different musical and really reap the benefits. Their performances are full of pathos, humour, real emotion and the audience can genuinely care about their journey. Compton’s performance is particularly astonishing: visceral and endearing; he offers a master class in the fully realised physical and emotional creation of character. The same can be said for Ward, who offers the stand out comedy turn of the evening and yet is also the production’s emotional heart. Their relationship is especially satisfying to watch and the audience is behind them from the very start.

The audience is with the production the whole way, but the careering energy and styles does not make it an easy ride. This is a great opportunity to see a cult musical given a caring and exciting treatment; but will you want to see it again?

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Reviewed 14/01/2015

By Robert Pearce
@RobertP_Actor

9th – 31st January 2015
Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1.

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