Writer: Barry McStay
Director: Lucy Jane Atkinson
Barry McStay’s bat-based drama Vespertilio has been selected by the King’s Head Theatre to be part of its first tranche of filmed plays uploaded on demand to their new KHTV service. This 65-minute two-hander previously seen at the Vault Festival is a celebration of the outsider as two men find love in a bat-filled tunnel while hiding from their problems.
Going to check on his favourite mouse-eared bat, a rare creature hibernating in a local tunnel, expert Alan stumbles across Josh sleeping rough and evicts him in case he disturbs the creatures. Running into each other again at Alan’s lecture, the men spend a passionate night together, but their very different personalities, age gap and history of family issues threaten to come between them.
Taking place over just a few days, McStay’s production often stretches credulity as Josh and Alan overcome their differences to develop an unshakeably intimate and life-changing connection. The fast-paced conversations and short scene structure mean that character revelations and transformations happen rapidly.
The characters in Vespertilio are opposites, although both have family issues that come to light during the play; Josh is very young, recently out of a defining university relationship but incredible self-confident and sexually forward, making a play for Alan almost immediately. By contrast the bat specialist is reticent and nervous, immersed in his work and seemingly happy with his isolated life.
But McStay begins with the premise that there is something wrong with Alan’s lifestyle that needs to be ‘fixed’ even though – arguably – it is Josh that is the character whose behaviour and choices require a greater scrutiny that never really comes. Alan’s failures are to be close to 40, single, no interest in social media and never seen a Harry Potter film and that requires him to undergo a transformation project to make him more normal, whereas Josh, who uses sex to gain access to Alan’s home, lies repeatedly and may have ulterior motives, is left unexplored. The audience is consistently pressed to empathise with the wrong person.
Given the outcomes of the plot and the disparities between them, it is difficult to see why these characters like each so much. As Josh, Joshua Oakes-Rogers gives an intense performance, filled with emotional backstory but with a belief that allows him to push himself into Alan’s life with ease. Benedict Salter is very sympathetic as the kind Alan, a man used to shutting himself away from the world and content with who he is until Josh shakes-up his routine. Salter charts the effect of that change very well.
Vespertilio has its tender moments and the chemistry between the characters is strong but taking place across a dozen short scenes, the plot is too reliant on a series of anecdotes strung together and then makes a huge leap in assuming this is enough for Alan and Josh to overcome the many differences between them to become a grand romance in just a couple of days. Like the mouse-eared bat that Alan loves so much, this play needs a little more hibernation time before the next stage of its journey.
Runs here until 5 May 2021