Anyone familiar with the background of ‘Bat Boy’ won’t be surprised to hear that the 1997 musical written in his honour, now playing at Southwark Playhouse, is every bit as bizarre as the story surrounding the Bat Boy himself.
That story goes something like this: in 1992 the Weekly World News (the entirely serious American tabloid known for headlines such as ‘GARDEN OF EDEN FOUND’ and ‘HILARY CLINTON ADOPTS ALIEN BABY’) published a headline claiming the existence of a ‘Bat Boy’. A half-human, half-bat creature, found in a cave by scientists and released into society. It was a hit. Bat Boy became the spoof tabloid’s most popular story to date. But there were still questions about the boy that needed to be answered once and for all. Who is the bat boy? Where did he come from? What’s happened to him? And thus Bat Boy the Musical was born.
It’s essentially the story of the Bat Boy’s struggle to adapt to life in American society. One of self-improvement, of prejudice and of persecution. He has to prove himself to those who won’t accept him for what he is, and although he’s ugly on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. If it sounds like a generic storyline, that’s because it is.
But its saving grace is the absurdity of the premise, which elevates this sentimental comedy into a whole new realm of silliness. Take the scene where Bat Boy’s adopted mother tries to teach him to speak, which soon descends into Bat Boy and mum on all fours, howling bat noises at each other. Slowly but surely, the noises begin to sound more and more like words. And sure enough, a few scenes later, Bat Boy (with the help of some BBC language tapes) is speaking the perfect Queen’s English.
None of this would work if it wasn’t for the exceptional performance of Rob Compton, whose Bat Boy is both amusing and startling. When we first meet him he’s at his most bat-like, and the physicality of his character makes him really seem like an animal trapped in human form. He crawls around stage, Golem-like, yipping and shrieking at those around him, who are often comically blasé about the presence of this hideous creature. And yet as the Bat Boy adapts to society and educates himself, Compton’s Bat Boy holds himself with the carriage of a true gentleman. It’s a demanding performance, but one that’s executed with great skill and confidence.
Musically the show’s a mixed bag. The songs themselves are often witty and fit fluidly in with the storyline, but there’s not much variation, and no real showstopper. With the exception of an amusingly bad rap sequence, the songs are all much of a muchness, backed by a lot of drums and electric guitar which quickly begin to sound repetitive.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to like Bat Boy, especially when everything going on is so preposterous, and if you don’t find yourself chuckling throughout at least one or two songs then I suspect there’s a chance that you too might be half-bat. But equally this sort of humour is never going to have the audience rolling in the aisles. Bat Boy is exactly what you’d expect from something born out of such ridiculousness: a very silly show indeed.