Sometimes a play’s title jumps out at you because it fully reveals what you are about to see. And sometimes it jumps out at you as it means absolutely nothing, but this very obscurity makes it intriguing. The latter was definitely the case with Vespertilio which sounds like it might be a spell out of the Harry Potter books which is ironic because… but I’ll get to that later. It transpires it’s the Latin for bat – specifically the male of the species and that is very appropriate because… but I’ll get to that later too. For now, let’s just accept that it’s the chosen title of a play by Barry McStay, produced by Flight and Hope and that it is premiering as part of the King’s Head Theatre’s new online initiative KHTV. Initially appearing as part of the 2019 Vaults Festival, this two-hander play has been revived by the original director and cast and filmed fresh in its new venue.
Alan Stafford is a chiropterologist (an authority on bats) and he’s tracked down the hibernating quarters of the last greater mouse-eared bat in Britain. Both socially awkward Alan and the bat are solitary creatures hiding away in their respective habitats and clinging on to life by their toenails. Alan discovers that the bat’s space has been invaded by Josh a young man who has been kicked out of his home and is sleeping rough.
Taking pity on the homeless waif, Alan allows Josh to invade his living space too and eventually his heart as, after a night of passion, he rapidly falls in love. Josh seems to reciprocate but it’s all actually rather more complicated and the progress of the two men’s brief encounter forms the substance of the play. In a series of short scenes Alan’s life is changed rapidly as Josh “educates” him about clothes (“I’m going to Queer Eye you”), sex, ordering pizza on delivery and the appeal of the Harry Potter franchise which he has never seen/read – told you I’d get to it. In return Alan offers Josh a sense of stability and a chance to find the understanding which his own family have apparently failed to show him.
All this is delightfully done and the early banter between the two men is certainly amusing; this odd couple start off poles apart but soon find themselves altering their perspective – at least Alan does. And herein lies a bit of an issue because the speed with which everything happens does stretch credulity; it seems unlikely that someone as buttoned up as Alan would drop his inhibitions quite so quickly.
The latter half of the play takes a darker turn and there’s a particularly clever scene where Alan is lecturing about another bat species; it becomes apparent that he is really making public his feelings about his association with the younger man.
Both Benedict Salter as Alan and Joshua Oakes-Rogers as Josh have created complex characters and handle the cut and thrust of McStay’s dialogue with aplomb returning to roles they have played many times before. Salter has a facility for commanding a moment simply by standing still and if Oakes-Rogers’ characterisation, a mixture of chaviness and camp, seems a little superficial, that is entirely intentional. There’s a definite feeling of ease between the pair of actors and with Lucy Jane Atkinson returning as director there’s a clear sense of practised continuity between the original production and this latest iteration which takes us to some dark places both figuratively and literally.
King’s Head Theatre are to be congratulated on their new initiative which brings some interesting recent pieces onto their stage and into our homes. The other four plays on offer are romantic comedy Jew…ish, the monologue Sacrament, searing drama Illusions Of Liberty and the revue I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical, all of which are now currently available and can be purchased individually or a season pass gets you into all five. They have all been filmed by ShootMedia and 50% of ticket sales go to the much beleaguered theatre industry freelancers. I can’t (yet) speak for the others but if Vespertilio is anything to go by they are going to be well worth checking out and there won’t be any head scratching over the titles either.