'Bat Boy' is a musical you'll either love or hate. Six people behind me left in the interval saying it was the worst thing they'd ever seen, whilst two people to the side of me laughed until they ached. The show's troubled performance history reads in a similar manner, but this is a show that will always succeed away from the mainstream, and on paper the Southwark Playhouse seems the ideal venue for its first London revival.
As the show was produced by Paul Taylor Mills and Morphic Graffiti - producers behind two of London's best productions of 2014, ('In the Heights' and 'Carousel')- expectations were understandably high. It was disappointing however to see a misfire on all accounts, as the production feels somewhat of a wasted opportunity.
In a nutshell, the show is set in 90s West Virginia where a 'bat boy' has been found living in a cave, and after biting a teenager, is handed into the care of local vet Dr Parker. Rather than being put down, the creature is saved by the Doctor's wife Meredith who begins his Pygmalion-esque progression to become a genteel human being.
There is not quite enough story to justify a two act musical, making for a rather desperate second act that has been designed to shock rather than develop character. Laurence O'Keefe's music and lyrics are a mixed bag of pastiche and parody, but does contain some moments of wit - if you manage to hear them above the band.
The tone of the show falls into the category of other off-Broadway musicals such as 'Little Shop of Horrors', 'Rocky Horror Show' and 'Heathers' - high camp, kitsch and a somewhat guilty pleasure. For this genre to work however every element of the production needs to be perfectly executed. There was an amateurish air to the whole production, from the horrific wigs, haphazard costumes and non period specific props which added to the overall lack of detail.
Staging wise there were simple errors that director Luke Fredericks has failed to address. Breaking with recent Southwark Playhouse tradition, it is staged with end-on seating and the stage width immediately becomes an issue. With at least 20% of the show happening on the floor, many find themselves with restricted view seats - despite sitting three rows back, myself and the people around me couldn't see anything that happened downstage left. It often contained a lot of grunting.
From the first moment the audience's focus is pulled in two directions at once - should we be looking at the Star Wars inspired text on the back wall or the Action Men dolls falling from the ceiling? - a problem that continues throughout the show. Somewhere within the production is a stronger musical screaming to be unleashed, but the lack of focus and constant attempts at scene stealing from the ensemble relegates it to little above summer stock.
There are some impressive lead performances, most notably from Rob Compton as 'Bat Boy' Edgar, whose physicality is spot on and he makes a valiant attempt to get his story through. The saving grace of the whole production was seasoned performer Lauren Ward as Meredith Parker. Her vocals were exceptional throughout and was one of a small handful that fully embraced the tone of the show in the correct way. Her rendition of "Three Bedroom House" was an unrivalled highlight of the evening.
The economical ensemble were collectively weak and missed the mark in the delivery of key numbers sporting pantomime accents and weak musicality. Simon Bailey fearlessly chewed the scenery and fought to pull focus in almost every scene, adding to the distractions and overall lack of focus throughout.
The overall design was badly executed, although I have to note that Bat Boy's teeth were excellent. Overuse and over reliance of video projection sucked creativity from the direction and the whole crux of the plot was left to a pre-recorded video which flattened the pace and rubbed against the tone of the musical as a whole rather than heighten it. Production values were significantly less than any other musical I've seen at the venue, which was somewhat of a shame to see.
This is a musical that will always have its fans as well as its critics. Whilst the show is not necessarily my cup of tea, I was ready to be converted, and I take no pleasure in saying that rather than bite, this Bat Boy sucks.