Few musicals are as bizarre as Bat Boy. It may have flopped on the West End in the early 00s, but it’s received successful runs both on and off Broadway and has become something of a cult classic. The mix of surrealism and camp-horror is in abundance in this production at the Southwark Playhouse for a hilarious performance that’s at times overwhelming and lacks a certain level of polish in its details.
The plot sounds like something out of a trashy B-movie: a creature, half-bat half-boy, is discovered in a cave near the fictional town of Hope Falls in West Virginia and adopted by a family who teach him the ways of society. But can his vampiric, blood-sucking habits really be tamed? Based on a 1992 article in fictional tabloid Weekly World News, it’s a satire on American pop culture, ridiculing the nuclear families, fanatical religion and conservative views of suburban Southern America tucked away in their white picket fenced houses. Bat Boy himself follows an Oedipal trajectory and the plot hinges on a somewhat distasteful rape joke, but you can forgive its odd quirks for its amusing black comedy – the show’s heart is in the right place.
This production continues the cinematic, cartoonish feel of the plot with projection screens used as a backdrop and somewhat grotesque acting. The problem is that the show is too noisy – both aurally and visually. The pounding rock score lacks balance between the musicians and the singers, meaning lyrics are often difficult to discern (an issue with the venue more than the show itself - it's too big for the space). More so, the production is visually overwhelming and its pop cultural references are all over the place. According to the programme, the time is ‘present day’, yet the costumes and décor are clearly 80s, there are references ranging from Star Wars to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, and props include a Dyson vacuum cleaner and an iPhone. Coupled with some poor quality animation and some of the worst wigs seen on stage and the already trashy feel of the show is just that little bit too trashy. The tone is clearly aiming towards 80s spoof (think Gremlins or Little Shop of Horrors), but it’s too inconsistent here.
If the frenetic visual style is sometimes distracting, the music is catchy, full of screaming guitars riffs and high octane melodies (even if the main theme is eerily similar to “One Night Only” from Dreamgirls). There are some suitably muscular voices across the ensemble to match the big sound– most notably Simon Bailey as the Reverend Hightower – but it’s the quieter moments that most impress. Rob Compton delivers an oddly believable physical performance as Bat Boy, but alongside the vocals of Georgina Hagen as Shelley Parker, they together bring some genuine tenderness in their love duet. Lauren Ward, meanwhile, provides motherly warmth and a sweet vocal as Meredith Parker. Let’s just forget the rap number from the first half shall we?
Above all, Bat Boy is a morality tale that celebrates the outsider and embraces difference – a big middle finger to American conservatism. If you can buy into its odd style and sense of humour, there is a hugely enjoyable and comical show here that’s as loud as it is proud.
Watch: Bat Boy runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 31st January.