After Cats, it’s now the turn for a bat to star in the West End. But even though I wanted to go batty for Bat Boy - The Musical, it’s safe to say that Cats needn’t worry about having its 21-year record-breaking run topped here.
Yes, I liked some of Laurence O'Keefe’s jaunty, pastiche-laden score, a fresh-blooded collection of country, rap and gospel-influenced songs with soupy, appealing love ballads (but an annoyingly insistent reverberating echo signalling the end of each big number). And it’s certainly refreshing to find those songs animating a freshly original story, too, plucked from the “headlines” of the Weekly World News, that charts the journey of an outsider to find acceptance in a family but intolerance from a wider community.
As that outsider – a boy, with pointy-shaped ears and a penchant for drinking blood, who’s discovered living in a cave near the town of Hope Falls, West Virginia, and quickly becomes labelled Bat Boy – American actor Deven May (recreating his performance from the original 2001 off-Broadway production) is an appealingly vulnerable and charming presence. May anchors the production with a palpable sincerity and honesty when the rest of it is too often surrendering to a strenuous, too-knowing atmosphere of pure camp.
But the frequent disparities in the tone and texture of Mark Wing-Davey’s loud, less-than-subtle production mean that total surrender to the musical’s overblown charms is ultimately impossible. Partly, it’s a matter of magnification. While Bat Boy was originally seen at a 499-seater Off-Broadway theatre, the Union Square, here it’s blown up to fill the far larger Shaftesbury (albeit with a false wall inserted into the rear stalls to draw the seating in a bit).
Wing-Davey has broadened the tone as well, trying to have it all ways at once: playing for truth one minute, for send-up comedy the next. Madeline Herbert’s design is also inexplicably daunting and ugly, and Mark Logue’s projections are more busy than effective.
The result of this collective failure to provide a consistent or convincing atmosphere is that the show fails to surprise or get under your skin in the way that similar ‘cult’ shows like The Rocky Horror Show or Little Shop of Horrors manage to do so effectively. You rooted for the characters of those shows, however improbable their dilemmas, but here – despite some strong voices from an ensemble that includes John Barr, Rebecca Vere and Emma Williams as the family who take Bat Boy in - I was never taken in myself.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from July 2004 and this production’s initial UK dates at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse.
The slogan on the West Yorkshire Playhouse usherettes' sweatshirts reads simply: “Another bloody musical”. It sure is that. If you have any tendency to faint at the sight of stage blood, stay away, because Bat Boy - The Musical has bucketsful more than Sweeney Todd - not to mention a bigger pile of stiffs at the curtain than The Duchess of Malfi.
Built on a load of flimflam in the tabloid Weekly World News about the supposed discovery, in a cave in the hills of West Virginia, of a two-feet tall half-man-half-bat, "the show", according to composer Laurence O'Keefe "is simultaneously dead serious and seriously loony." The dead serious bit is the familiar one of the predisposition of Americans to mass hysteria in the face of the unexplained, supposed threat - The Crucible as baroque musical melodrama, if you like.
As for the seriously loony … in a plot which would creak dangerously if it didn’t drive ever onwards with such reckless impetus, Bat Boy is captured, billeted with the local vet, given the name Edgar and transformed from gibbering, uncoordinated wild creature to apparent human being with full command of received English. All in the course of a single song. The vet's wife and virginal blonde daughter become Edgar’s champions and the girl makes it very clear very quickly that she’s keen to lose the word 'virginal' from her credentials. Which, ritually - thanks to a ceremony organised by the god Pan - she does. Then the real trouble begins.
Actually, the trouble had begun from the moment Edgar was captured. He was, after all, different, and thus credited with deaths in families and the failure of cattle herds to flourish. "You're trying to raise cows on the side of a mountain!" the vet's wife observes. But too late, too late. By then the community is baying for the sheriff to kill Edgar before he visits more tragedy upon them.
With a book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming and O'Keefe's music and lyrics, Bat Boy has a narrative and musical drive of glorious pace and energy. Camp hokum from start to finish, it’s notable for a very fine, tight ensemble performance under the direction of Mark Wing-Davey, in the midst of which Deven May's Edgar is excellent but not stellar. It's not easy to know how a bat boy would comport himself, but May's performance is rather more simian than batty, his movement like early Jerry Lewis; but he sings like an angel. Emma Williams as Shelley, the vet's girl, similarly throws herself vocally and physically into the role of star-struck adolescent, though a loose-fitting frock only just hides the fact that she is strictly too physically mature for the role.
With the transfer already confirmed, my advice is: Hold tight, London. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll take to this as to the Rocky Horror Show.