With its origins in a batty tabloid paper, Weekly World News, Bat Boy: The Musical is a full-belting American piece of musical theatre. Bat Boy became a cult figure after his exposition in 1992, being revived by Weekly World News and picked up by American Dad and The Simpsons. The ensuing book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming was picked up by Laurence O’Keefe and turned into a musical. It tells the tale of a bat-like boy who grew up in a cave, discovered by some kids climbing and taken into a family home, where he is loved and accepted but kept hidden away from the judgemental town folk.
Set in the West Virginian town of Hope Falls, my hope really did fall from the opening number. Not only were the mics too loud for clarity but the cartoonish characterisations of the town’s residents were too obtuse and garish to be amusing. That being said, and this was true throughout, there was a strong response to comedy from the audience, although I suspect a majority were friends of the cast. I really strongly disliked the play, but I did still find it funny. At least, I involuntarily laughed along.
What tried to be camp satire, turned out absurd and crude. Some of the musical pastiche was more successful – a drag queen number of ‘Mother Nature’s Sex Ed’ for example was genuinely amusing. But the ensemble work was shouty, uncoordinated and excessive. Unlike the more naturalist family scenes, depicting Edgar undergoing an education to become a polite young man (though dependent on blood), the ensemble scenes were tongue-in-cheek, rowdy and everything I hate about musical theatre.
Especially ridiculous was the ‘Revival’ scene, set in the town’s church with an enigmatically insincere preacher, which poked fun at bible belt America. The poking fun, however, didn’t feel like anything more than ill-conceived stereotyping (quite unlike, say, The Book of Mormon). As they sung of their “Christian charity” and tolerance, prayed for healing, and followed the preacher’s example there was no nuance or sincerity beneath the attempted parody. The exposition and storytelling in the script were shoddy to say the least – too reliant I suggest on Bat Boy’s cult figure status of which I know next to nothing. The digital graphics work somewhat made up for the rest of the appallingly amateur set design.
That all being said, Rob Compton’s performance as the Bat Boy was *brilliant*. His rippling muscles and body isolations created a visceral physical theatre presence that continued well into the civilised and assimilated Edgar of the second half. His comic first howling notes with mother Meredith – the savage first learning expression – were both touching and hilarious.
Bat Boy: The Musical is a Morphic Graffiti production at Southwark Playhouse until 31 January 2015.