AND YOU THOUGHT SPIDERMAN WAS CREEPY…
Imagine a rock-opera mashup of Frankenstein, Pygmalion and Dracula, hijacked by Marvel Comics and dressed up with cartoonish 1950s smalltown Americana. Add gorgeous retro projections overhead, a great deal of screaming, an orgasmic revival meeting with a pastor in a canary-yellow suit truffling for Sin, some deafeningly fierce bass beats and a few yearning teen-spirit ballads of misunderstood adolescence.
Got it? This knowing , cultish, campy show by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming , with Laurence O’Keefe songs, was new to me though in 1997 it won off-Broadway plaudits and did reasonably well here seven years later. It’s a canny choice for Southwark’s youthful audience, with enough dry wit and streaks of sincerity to recapture me after losing me for a while during some rather tiresome small-town ensembles. It was inspired by a cod news story about a boy raised by bats in a cave – a vampiric Mowgli . He is adopted by the local vet’s family (for reasons melodramatically revealed much later) while the townsfolk of West Virginia want him killed because he may be preying on the cows, and because he bit a local girl whose blood now won’t clot.
Luke Fredericks’ production for Morphic Graffiti (who did so well with Carousel at the Arcola) suits the inventive gift for spectacle of this warehouse theatre: a huge overarching cave becomes a two-level stage with rapid projections offering filmic scene-shifts, and Mark Crossland leads a five- piece rock band overhead. At its heart, though, is a tremendous performance from Rob Compton as Bat Boy, renamed Edgar by his doting foster mum (Lauren Ward) and resented by her vet husband (Matthew White). At first Compton is a snarling bestial nightmare: bald, pointed-eared, fanged and powerful, his tall form bat-folded and jerking in a sack and a cage. But, never losing his strangeness and air of suppressed feral energy, he evolves into speaking, pouring tea, graduating High School with a dissertation on Copernicus and Darwin and (gloriously) adopting stilted BBC English learned off tapes. His big yearning numbers where he longs for acceptance by the community “Why can’t I make this world my home?” surprise with a sudden genuine, heart-shaking relevance in a city of uneasy diversity.
On the other hand, Compton’s sudden jagged crouching lapses into instinctive and bloodlustful bat ferocity made me jump nervously in the theatre lobby at the sight of any rangy athletic young chap with a cleanshaven head. Given the hip profile of Southwark audiences, that happened quite often before I escaped onto Newington Causeway. Luckily, none of them actually had pointed ears. I think. Definitely saw some fangs, though.
Box Office 020 7407 0234 http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
to 31 Jan