Last Updated on 17th June 2017
19 January 2015
Now playing at the Southwark Playhouse is the Morphic Graffiti revival of Bat Boy The Musical, directed by Luke Fredericks. Bat Boy is a cult musical if ever there was one and perhaps as far away as one could imagine from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel which was a great success for Fredericks and Morphic Graffiti last year.
Inspired by a lurid tale from a US tabloid, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming wrote a comic book style fable and Laurence O’Keefe wrote lyrics and a score which toyed with various musical styles, from Gospel to rap and everything in between and beyond, evoking various well-known musicals along the way. Its best success was off-Broadway in 2001 although it had a spectacular L.A. debut on Halloween night in 1997. It was reworked for its London season in 2004, but this production returns to the original version.
The linear notes from the original US cast recording put it this way:
“…In the tradition of prior dramatists who turned historical fact into tragedy…the authors of Bat Boy departed from the known record of their subject in order to uncover a deeper truth. Their aim was to tell a tale that would raise the consciousness of a nation, even if it were unfaithful to the facts of the Weekly World News accounts. Farley and Flemming constructed a drama that cast the Bat Child in the role he seemed fated to play, that of the doomed central figure of a tragedy, desperately grasping for acceptance and love, and finding both for fleeting moments, but all the while hurtling inexorably toward the truth of his unholy origin, the revelation of which constitutes a horror worse than death. The first part of the story gives Bat Boy what he seems to need – a family, a society, a romance, a home. Then, with the cruelty of life itself, the second part of the story takes it all away, leaving Bat Boy with nothing but the devastating knowledge that he is what we all secretly fear ourselves to be.”
Fredericks’ ambitious and skilful production certainly seeks to be true to that expressed vision – and succeeds admirably. Stewart Charlesworth provides a striking comic-book style cave, garish and colourful; there are two levels for the playing spaces and on the top level projections create a series of backdrops and theme enhancement images. In the second Act there play a series of quite hilarious films which augment the action – the one with the kitten and the banana will stay with me a long time. Using these multi-media additions helps immeasurably with the storytelling.
Everything about the set is surreal and inventive (even the pseudo-suburban home interior has a touch of the sit-com about it) and helps propel the audience imagination into the correct sphere. Looked at one way, the set could be the creation of a teenager creating her/his own fictional world where exotic things take place; where the horrors of their adolescent lives can play out in ways which release the pain.
Charlesworth’s costumes also help in this fantasy respect. They are colourful and gaudy when they need to be (Revivalist Minister, Mother Nature, country caricatures) and realistic and slightly Happy Days like in other ways (the family who take in the Bat Boy, whom they name Edgar). It’s a clever and heady mix which keeps the silliness of the plot to the fore, thereby accentuating the underlying themes of isolation, difference and acceptance. The bad wigs of the more colourful characters help emphasise the unreality of proceedings too, a touch I thought was inspired.
It is interesting to note that Bat Boy premiered two decades after The Elephant Man did – they share similar themes and underlying issues, but the way of expressing and highlighting those themes could not be more different. Yet, both are very very effective. And the points they make still need to be made today, another (almost) two decades on, just as they did when both premiered.
The success of the piece, no matter how well the Director understands the show or the score is played with flair and gusto (as it is here by Musical Director Mark Crossland and the gifted small ensemble) or the casting is first-rate, depends on the central performance of Edgar, the Bat Boy. It is essential that Edgar be real, yet fantastical; part human, part bat, rejected by civilisation, left to grow up in isolation, darkness and feral fear, he is a mutation of a kind or perhaps, more accurately, a representation of what we all might be without love, education, care and an integrated society.
When first encountered, Bat Boy seems little more than a deranged monster, a deformed animal that should be put down, one that might cause plague or murder if left unchecked. But there is something else too – a desperation to be noticed, to have contact with others. Later, after he has been educated (go the BBC!), Edgar revels in his newly acquired normality, just wants to fit in. But the way he is treated by the community in which he finds himself unleashes his former nature in moments of stress or anger. Those moments of relapse come to cost Edgar everything.
Society creates the problem, judges it, prods it until it bites and then hunts it down with self-righteous glee. Some Jacobean tragedies succeed on less honest and insightful material.
Rob Compton is quite remarkable in the title role here. The pain and anger and fear he expresses through vocal guttural cries combined with the way he uses his almost entirely naked body to establish precisely how instinctive, alert and animalistic his existence, his life in subterranean caves, has caused him to be, is enthralling to watch. His progression through the various stages which mark his transformation to Edgar – confinement to a cage, education and training, finding God, falling in love – is charted with care and nuance: each moment is completely believable. His make-up is both subtle and unsubtle at once; a rare but wholly successful achievement.
His relationships with the Parker family are clearly and quite beautifully drawn. Compton works tirelessly to show the inner and outer feelings of this most complex of characters. Happily, he can sing fabulously as well, so there is no short-changing when it comes to the technical demands of the score. Compton’s Edgar is superb in every way.
Lauren Ward has never been better than she is here as Meredith, the perfect suburban American housewife and mother. She sings and acts with precision and gusto, making every moment and note count for a character, rather like Edgar, who has her world upturned, finds joy and then has it snatched from her. Her work in Three Bedroom House skilfully illustrated the internal conflicts Meredith suffers and the moment of her great, personal, and ultimately catastrophic, revelation is tremendously judged. This is a very fine performance, full of grace and complete conviction.
As Dr Parker, Matthew White is in terrific form as this Jekyll and Hyde character desperate to keep silent the misdeeds of his past, so desperate he will commit cold blooded murder and blame it on Edgar. White is a joy: one moment he seems like Fred MacMurry from My Three Sons, the next he would give Lon Chaney a run for his money. Mercurial but completely right, White also sings with line and beauty, and he can dance too. Another pitch-perfect performance.
Georgina Hagen completes the central quartet as Shelley Parker, the teenager who is lost before she meets Edgar (in the sense that she wants to please the town stud, sexually and in any other way) and who is transformed by Edgar’s education almost as much as he is. She loses her feral qualities and develops a true understanding of love. It’s a gentle and carefully thought through performance from Hagen, another triple threat whose voice is a complete joy to listen to, especially in the numbers with Compton and Ward.
The rest of the cast are all excellent and all can sing very well, play multiple characters to good comic and dramatic effect and execute Joey McKneely’s choreography (not always as inventive as might be desirable, but quirky and fun for the most part) with enthusiasm and glee. The go-go dancers in Nolan Fredericks’ sensational Mother Nature number, Children Children, have to be seen to be believed.
Simon Bailey, in an electric yellow suit that would shine the light of heaven into any black crevice, has enormous fun as the Reverend Hightower and sings with the right degree of self-obsessed fervour. And especially good is Russell Wilcox as the straight character of the piece, the befuddled but good-natured Sheriff who is simply out of his depth. Wilcox provides essential contrast in a sea of eccentricity.
Sound Designer Mike Thacker almost single-handedly undoes the excellent work of everyone else involved in the production. The sound levels are way, way too high, pointlessly screaming in such a space. The mix is completely wrong as well. It’s not just a question of volume, but balance and sense. Frequently, the glutinous mass of sound is incoherent and lyrics are swallowed up in a Jonah’s Whale of hideous unrelenting noise. This needs to be fixed now because it is the Sound Design which takes the shine off an otherwise sparkling jewel of a production.
With the sound design fixed so that the skill of the artists in the cast can be properly enjoyed, this could be a production that plays and plays, transfers and tours. It shows the musical form pushed to its edges and how rewarding that can be.