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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Bat Boy: The Musical
Shaftesbury Theatre, Autumn 2004

It's had more than its fair share of brickbats, but I'd advise you to hurry on down to the Shaftesbury as soon as you can to see Bat Boy just in case the run ends suddenly. Certainly, the critics have had their knives out for this poppy yet dark musical import from the States, just as the townsfolk have it in for the unwary Bat Boy who suddenly descends on their hicksville community.

Deep in Smalltown, USA (actually Hope Falls, West Virginia), a trio of white trash siblings discover a bat boy in the caves near where they live. That takes place in the first minutes, and the plotlines instantly scatter, well, like bats at dusk. Abandoned at birth and raised by bats, Bat Boy has to fight the town's prejudice and violence before settling down with the apple-pie family of the doctor whose weekend hunting brings back the geese and rabbits that feed his young charge's need for blood. Factor in a crisis at the local slaughterhouse, a girl in hospital as a result of Bat Boy's bite, an unlikely romance, dark family secrets, and a climactic Christian revival meeting, and you've got quite a lot to be occupying yourself with for one evening.

It's a winning cast with a winning director (Mark Wing-Davey). As Bat Boy, Deven May gives the unlikely performance of a lifetime with infectious physicality and impeccable timing. Part My Left Foot, part Jim Carrey, part My Fair Lady, his is a remarkable transformation in which he evolves from the dignified dementia of the wild boy fresh out of the cave to the demented dignity of the sophomore who minds his Ps and Qs.

Emma Williams's Shelley, the daughter of the household that takes him unto their bosom, is squeaky clean but has a heart as golden as her voice (her Mine, All Mine with Bat Boy provides that tingle moment), while Rebecca Vere and John Barr deservedly scene-steal as her parents, the moral yet smouldering Meredith and the loving yet pressurised Dr John Parker. (No disrespect to or comparison with Vere, but Meredith had to be written for Harvey Fierstein.)

Unashamedly pastisches, the songs inspire nonetheless and there isn't a duff one in the show. The genius here is making tired stock numbers (the rap number, the big gospel piece, the hoe-down, the lover's duet...) appear utterly original. Hey Freak is a white-man's rap where Shelley, Meredith and macho suitor Rick debate their new guest, while the big number Show You A Thing Or Two manages to be both classic chorus-line and satirical via massed cheerleaders. Maurey Richards's pastor the Rev Hightower leads the revival meeting in A Joyful Noise and gets the house swinging, but highlight of the show must be the very strange and bizarre Children, Children. Like some outtake from Night Of The Hunter, Bat Boy and Shelley end up deep in the woods where the god Pan (a soaring, profane David Beckford) and the Animals of the Forest present a decidedly carnal viewpoint of life.

It is highly significant that this show comes from LA and not Broadway -- writers Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming come from satirical TV and subversive kids cartoon hit series Rugrats. They not only write but they also produce, direct and perform. so it comes as no surprise that Broadway conventions are a challenge to not only overcome but mangle, regurgitate and spit back onto stage in glorious Technicolor. You even get a sneaking suspicion halfway through that they're going for a tragedy of Classical Greek proportions and... well, you'll have to wait and see. Laurence O'Keefe's songs do pretty much the same: just as you've caught the style or songwriter reference, it's snatched away from you and he's on to gleefully plunder another songbook or Tin Pan Alley source.

Certainly, this has been written with more than half an eye on the potential film version that, like Little Shop of Horrors and Hedwig, will hit our screens some day, and so Bat Boy will not be to every theatregoer's taste, thanks especially to the way it (wonderfully) dumps on every smidgen of post-modern popular culture and refuses to compromise. Yet this is as old-fashioned and as un-saccharine a musical as you'll find that never once allows the story to be eclipsed.

On top of that, the songs are hummable, the cast is simply buzzing, the inventive set is to die for and, above all, you'll laugh!

Nick Awde

 

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Review - Bat Boy - Shaftsbury 2004