What makes something a monster? A small town in America finds an unlikely creature in its midst when, after an attack, a wild boy is dragged from the cave he grew up in and brought into the town to be put down by the local vet, Dr. Parker.
Edgar is a cross-species creature somewhere between human and bat – not by choice and without a Batmobile – and he brings out the best and the worst in the Parker family and the rest of the inept hillbilly villagers. A lot of strain is placed on the family bonds with daughter Shelley (Georgina Hagen) initially resenting and then slowly warming to Edgar and Dr. Parker caught between the public pressure to kill the beast and the wish to please his cold-shouldered wife who has mysteriously rather taken to the boy. Murderous and forbidden desires have everyone picking up their stakes and baring their metaphorical fangs.
A ramshackle aesthetic – intentionally bad wigs married with gothic sentimentality and overblown video art installation-style projections – meant that a touch of consistency was lacking from this freak-as-hero tale. Relishing the joyful quirkiness of Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming’s book Morphic Graffiti‘s take on the 1997 US cult musical Bat Boy it was sad to see the production get lost somewhere along the way between South Park and Twin Peaks. Stewart Charlesworth’s knowingly kitsch design package that wrapped around the whole piece never quite caught up with the promise of the gorgeous-looking tumblr fest of the overture, which was awash with references to Robin Thicke and Star Wars. Bat Boy has a slow-moving first act with too few really outstanding moments. As soon as Rob Compton leaves behind his exquisitely creepy Gollum-like physicality and turns into a proper young gentleman, complete with polite RP accent, the questions is: where is the horror hiding? Is it in the happy-clappy religious fanaticism of small-town narrow-mindedness or maybe in the inevitability of past errors playing catch-up?
With the gospel-like ‘Comfort and Joy’ and a spot-on comedy performance by Simon Bailey as Reverend Hightower, the second act gets rid of the safety breaks early on and in doing so reveals how unfocussed the first act was. Most of the cast did not struggle to deliver Laurence O’Keefe’s high-soaring tunes although the music relied too much on for-effect-only sustained high final notes to be actually catchy. Lauren Ward hit all the sweet spots in her solo scenes and even more so when in duet with Compton’s Edgar, their convincing chemistry giving way to some soaring moments.
Other aspects of the production lack that level of conviction. Too many things are just that tiny bit off: the trash was not crisp enough to be consistently amusing, the light too sluggish and the soundscape somewhat dulled. More precision and faith in the silliness of the material would have lent more stylistic integrity to the whole show.
Bat Boy has something of a cult following and for fans this production presents a rare chance to see the piece in London. But for those who are drawn to it for its mixture of the bizarre and the outrageous, as well as its send up of religion, Book of Mormon might still be a better bet.