When it's love at first bite

Inspired by US tabloid fodder, Bat Boy is a musical for nightcrawlers everywhere

It may be every artist's dream to have his work take on an urgently topical relevance, but Laurence O'Keefe has been visited with too much of a good thing: in his new musical, West Virginians put a bag over a young man's head, lock him in a cage, and threaten him with rape, mutilation and death.

O'Keefe is keen to play down the similarity of his show to certain recent events, but it seems likely that audiences at the West Yorkshire Playhouse will react more strongly to those scenes than their author intended - especially if they were expecting a show about a cape-wearing crimefighter. This play also has a blood-drinking hero and a fire in a slaughterhouse, and is described by its producer, Michael Alden, as "somewhere between My Fair Lady and Edward Scissorhands". It's called Bat Boy.

The origin of the musical is an article in Weekly World News, an American paper for the credulous and paranoid. In 1992, it ran an item headed "Bat Child Found in Cave", and the story has since run and run. "Sightings" of Bat Boy - as of Bigfoot and UFOs - continue, and he has attracted a sizable following. Two fans, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, thought that Bat Boy would be a good subject for a musical, and, with their book and O'Keefe's music and lyrics, the show opened off-Broadway in the spring of 2001.

Bat Boy may sound like Little Shop of Horrors or The Rocky Horror Show, but its own horrors are mingled with comedy, romance and symbolism. Part human, part vampire, the wingless but pointy-eared youth is found by spelunkers and dragged, squeaking, to Hope Falls, a town riven by economic and spiritual anguish. The coal mines have been worked out, and a cattle plague is devastating the ranching operation on which the locals have staked their fortunes.

Though the townspeople's attitude toward Bat Boy is: "Kill it first and understand it later", he is taken to the home of Dr Parker, a vet with a frustrated wife and a lonely daughter. Shelley falls in love with Bat Boy. But, when Bat Boy's origins are revealed, they turn out to be far more appalling than even his deformed appearance would suggest.

Buried secrets and present-day hatred collide in a catacylsmic ending that teaches the humbled townspeople important truths: "Love your neighbour, forgive, keep your vows/ And a mountain's no place to raise cows."

Alden plans to drum up business with Britain's sizable population of bat lovers. He also hopes to replicate the New York production's novel bat-themed service to the community. "We're going to be working with the National Blood Service in Leeds. In New York, we mounted one of the largest mobile drives in the city. The cast sang songs from the show, and lots of people lined up."

The average theatre producer aims to get the public to open their wallets. "We", Alden says, rubbing his hands, "want them to open their veins."

'Bat Boy', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113-213 7700) runs to 17 July

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