Music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe
Story and book by Keythe Farley and Brain Flemming
Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Southwark Playhouse at Elephant & Castle is building a great reputation as the place for musicals, most of them new and which represent an antidote to the lazy jukebox shows or tired movie adaptations that are the staple of the West End. Here you can see premieres of shows, like Into the Heights, which have won plaudits on Broadway but which nobody would risk in the West End.
Bat Boy: The Musical is an interesting curiosity, which is given a very spirited production here, distinguished by some top–notch performances. For once it’s a revival, having originated in 2001 off Broadway where it was well received, it only lasted 4 months in the West End in 2004.
Stylistically it is in a direct line from rock musicals such as Rocky Horror or Little Shop of Horrors where the aesthetic is comic book and frenetic. The innovative young company Morphic Graffiti, made up of director Luke Fredericks and designer Stewart Charlesworth, have given the piece an audacious energy. Admittedly though, eardrums do get rattled and lyrics lost in a sound–mix which overwhelms this small space.
This being the small town America of popular consciousness, the creature is of course quickly demonised, blamed for biting a local girl and as the reason why the cattle aren’t thriving. The Vet’s wife has a major battle on her hands therefore to prevent him being lynched and matters are complicated by the sexual jealousy of her husband and competition for the boy’s affections from her daughter. Lauren Ward, who was so brilliant in Matilda, brings great class to the part of Mrs Parker, investing her with humanity and wit and a degree of nuance, which is sadly absent from the other performances. Rob Compton as the boy is also a stand out, delivering an astonishingly visceral performance of gymnastic intensity. At times it’s hard to witness but he is never less than compelling as we follow the Bat Boy’s struggle for acceptance.
Projections, an obvious staple of the fringe, are embraced fully here particularly in the last act where all the back–story is rather clumsily rushed over on video, despite the first act having had many longeurs. This is a fault of the book and not the commitment of the design team, who as usual in the fringe, do wonders with very little.
O’Keefe’s score ranges from pop to rock opera, gospel, 70s disco and even a faux Jerry Herman but this studied lack of stylistic unity is a problem for a piece which really needs a signature style to make it fly. The aesthetic is campily lurid sitcom, so are they sending it up or trying to make us care? This just isn’t accomplished enough to pull off both. (A warning for Americans – the accents are ropey.)