Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2
Opened 8 September, 2004

It was around the point that the domesticated half-boy, half-bat protagonist and his adoptive sister, fleeing a hot-gospel meeting in their small West Virginia community which is up in arms against him because her veterinarian father has (in an excess of marital jealousy) been murdering people and framing him, finally succumb to their incestuous romantic impulses and come together in a pagan yet Edenic way naked but for fig-leaves amid a dance routine performed by woodland creatures and overseen by the god Pan... Wait a minute: is this making any kind of sense to you? No, I thought not. And yet it was only at this point that I felt Bat Boy truly began to leave all reasonable compass behind.

This off-Broadway musical received, at best, politely baffled reviews on its June opening in Leeds. Its producers really should have known better than to plonk it down in a 1400-seat West End theatre where even bussing in a noisy claque cannot disguise that any attempt at subtlety or complexity is doomed to failure.

OK, forget subtlety, but there is complexity here. Or at least muddle. Story writers Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming try to have their cake and eat it, or have their blood and drink it, or whatever. On the one hand, the show aspires to be Rocky Horror-style high camp, as hokey small-town American values collide with the supernaturally bizarre. On the other, though, it tries to make the town of Hope Falls plausible enough for the script's message about the damage wreaked by prejudice and misunderstanding to seem trenchant rather than trite.

Guess what? It fails. The earnest shadows taint the hi-jinks, giving the camp a slimy taste in the mouth, so to speak; eventually, it gives up all attempt at seriousness and just flies further and further over the top, but by then the damage is done and it just seems unpalatable. Nor are Laurence O'Keefe's songs memorable enough (except for a rap number which you really wish was forgettable) to counteract this. The music lacks a necessary parodic edge, being more or less in the mainstream stage-musical idiom.

Deven May, reprising his Los Angeles and New York appearances in the title role, has bags of energy and even a goofy kind of charm. Mark Wing-Davey's direction tries to find a way of reconciling the show's conflicting moods, by being as smart as its high points and hoping to paper over its stupidities, but to no avail. This show won't see Hallowe'en.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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