By Darby Turnbull
I must confess I struggled with Barry McStay’s Vespertilio, again directed by Gavin Roach. Bat aficionado Alan (Alec Gilbert), an older gentleman with inherited wealth encounters Josh (Ozzy Breen- Carr) a man in his late teens sleeping rough in a tunnel that’s the hibernating place of Britain’s only greater mouse eared bat. The two men form an unexpected and passionate connection that comes as a surprise to the reclusive Alan whose social and emotional isolation mirrors his beloved bat, the last of his kind who hasn’t shown any inclination to mate and wouldn’t be able to if he had (the metaphor will be repeated many, many times) however the enigmatic Josh, brings him out of his shell and opens him up to feelings he’d elected not to engage with. Josh for his part is navigating his place in the world as a young, queer and to his mind average young man with a Christian, conservative family who have ostensibly rejected him.
The cogs in McStay’s text are somewhat creaky and the production hasn’t quite found a way to elevate the writing beyond cursory engagement. Alec Gilbert brings a wealth of experience, and his Alan is a finely drawn and evokes a beautifully subtle opening up from his nebbish, somewhat cold beginnings and his eventual break down is moving in its inevitability. Gilbert’s performance, with its many layers and quick bursts of anger and obsession, hint at more tantalizing possibilities for the character beyond what the script allows. Ozzy Breen-Carr for his part has a manic, erratic energy that works well in the early scenes of the play but as Josh’s contradictions and unreliability begin to emerge, he’s left unsupported by the writing and production. What could be an electric psychosexual character study turns into another myopic dirge about a manic pixie dream boy inserting himself into the life of a broken man. McStay’s writing consistently forgoes careful characterisation for simply having the characters voice the themes point blank, it’s a trap many playwrights fall into (I certainly have) but it results in the play not holding up to interrogation. For example, Alan and Josh, in this production, at least have no chemistry beyond two actors who share a companionable stage presence, what is it about this boy that Alan would upend his carefully manufactured isolation? Josh, who’s a compulsive liar, doesn’t offer many surprises and what alludes to a poignant study of shame and deep-rooted self-loathing dissolves into a mucky tantrum. Compassion, or at least sceptical empathy for this boy, could be the emotional hook for this production but, for me, I wasn’t able to access it.
The production isn’t, unfortunately, assisted by the sound design. Jack Burmeister’s underscoring has a soporific effect that makes the play move at an interminable pace and seems inappropriate for the tension and tone of the play. Iz Zettl’s lighting is effective in communicating time and place, and it’s necessary to play much of the play in low light, but it doesn’t provide much needed energy.