Review: Vespertilio

GR-Vespertilio-Alec-Gilbert-and-Ozzy-Breen-Carr-photo-by-Alex-WinnerIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that a lot of art about gay men features relationships with significant age gaps. There’s Call Me By Your Name, of course, with the seventeen-year-old Elio and twenty-four-year-old Oliver cycling away their age difference under Italian skies. But it’s on our stages, too.

We might think of Griffin Theatre’s Green Park, which staged a Grindr hookup with a three-decade age difference back in 2021 or James Elazzi’s Lion Tattoo, which did something remarkably similar for Red Stitch Theatre in the same year.

Currently, you can see a sexless marriage between a thirty-something and a sixty-something billionaire in Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance at fortyfivedownstairs. Opposites attract, and nothing could be more opposing than a generational divide.

Barry McStay’s 2019 two-hander, Vespertilio doesn’t begin with a Grindr hookup or a sexless marriage, but rather an endangered bat and a homeless youth. Alan (Alec Gilbert) is the self-prescribed protector of the last mouse-eared bat, a prim and proper loner and staunch defender of these winged beasts.

Josh (Ozzy Breen-Carr) is a charismatic vagabond, sleeping rough beneath Alan’s nocturnal faves. Though it’s never explicitly named in the show, there’s a good three or four decades between the pair, who soon strike up a love affair after a tense ‘meet-cute’ in the den of a local colony.

Director and producer, Gavin Roach is renowned for bringing eclectic, unsung Fringe hits to our shores. In this year’s Midsumma Festival alone, they have four productions to their name. Their shows are often designed to tour easily; with simple staging, rudimentary design, and a utilitarian directing style that, though unambitious, showcases its actors and the often surprisingly affecting writing of its unseen queer playwrights.

Rarely over an hour, Roach’s productions, at their best, offer quickfire thrills and a palatable glimpse into the queer art of fringe and festival circuits outside of Australia. At their worst, they can feel basic and carelessly slapped together. Too often do the scripts Roach choose require more thought than perhaps they simply have time for.

Vespertilio certainly could have done with a more precise and coherent vision. It is an odd play. After they hook up, Josh quickly moves into Alan’s spare room. Gilbert is a warm actor, and his dorky and earnest delivery makes Alan immediately endearing.

Breen-Carr matches him with a wily charm and a flirtatious bawdiness, making simple moments between the pair among the show’s best – whether nestled together watching Harry Potter or sharing heart-wrenching anecdotes about their families.

But McStay’s script rarely mentions the age difference between its two characters, and this absence looms large over this production, which has exacerbated the dynamic by casting Alan older than previous productions.

I don’t want to descend into moralist handwringing, but it is odd to see such an age difference play out in earnest, especially between a vulnerable youth and a wealthy man. Alan’s ignorance of Josh’s pop cultural references is the closest we get to a real conversation about what separates them.

Then, there is the discordant tone struck by Jack Burmeister’s sound design, which signals scene transitions with the eerie screeching of bats and more emotional scenes with a beautifully sombre piano line. There is an underlying menace undergirding many scenes, but the relationship between these Gothic-like screeches and melancholy underscoring work is unclear.

Underscoring Alan’s declarations of love (three days into their relationship, mind you) with a swelling ballad-like chord progression risks appearing to endorse Alan and Josh’s relationship uncritically, and misreading the more complex dynamic McStay’s writing is interested in exploring. The Australian accents used by both actors is also at odds with McStay’s explicitly British script. In an Aussie drawl, ‘innit’ and ‘bruv’ seem near comical.

Part of the problem is McStay’s script, which feels crowded with sub-plots and underwritten character flaws it doesn’t have time to effectively unpack. But a firmer hand or more cohesive vision might have been able to bring the complex threads he weaves together in Vespertilio better.

When Alan and Josh’s week-long relationship breaks down under the gaze of an endangered bat, it’s unclear how the show wants us to feel. And the actors reflect this with similarly unsure performances.

It’s an admirable feat to bring queer theatre from the Fringes to our shores, but more needs to be asked about what we want to say with the kind of shows that we shine a light on, and how we do so.

Meat Market – Stables, 2 Wreckyn Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 31 January 2024
Season continues to 10 February 2024
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Image: Alec Gilbert and Ozzy Breen-Carr – photo by Alex Winner

Review: Guy Webster