Inspiration is often found in unexpected places and, last summer, Irish playwright Barry McStay discovered it while flicking through a Guardian Long Read I wrote about a lonely bat. The true tale of Britain’s only greater mouse-eared bat, which spent 16 winters hibernating alone in a disused railway tunnel in Sussex, inspired McStay to write Vespertilio, a new play that opens this week in another disused railway tunnel, this one beneath Waterloo station in London.
Vespertilio begins with a devoted conservationist guarding this rare bat. But what follows is fiction: a young homeless runaway, Josh, seeks shelter in the tunnel, and meets Alan, the middle-aged bat-lover. So begins a fraught relationship between two very different men. Through the poignant symbol of the lone bat, McStay’s two-hander explores loneliness within the gay community, as a story of love, deceit and possibly redemption unfolds in the tunnel.
The bat’s story, says McStay, “just made me really interested in something I didn’t think I’d be interested in. Why do we keep watching stories about two people falling in love? There has to be a new way of telling the story. This seemed like just another brilliant way of telling a very old story.”
He thought it would be ideal for the Vault festival, which is held each year in arches and tunnels beneath Waterloo station, and found director Lucy Jane Atkinson particularly enthusiastic. “I’ve always been a bat nerd,” she says, “and it just sung to me.” When Atkinson was six, rangers on a camping holiday taught her a pro-bat song: “Bats eat bugs / They don’t eat people.” Her song has flitted into the show.
Atkinson and McStay cast Benedict Salter as bat-obsessed Alan, who lives alone and devotes his life to protecting the creature. Salter cried when he first read Alan’s lecture about the lonely bat. “There’s a line – ‘Chances are he will spend the rest of his life alone’ – and that’s upsetting.”
His character Alan “believes he’s one of a kind, meant to be alone and doesn’t deserve love. To go on a journey with him, where he discovers he might have something to offer – as an actor, you want to repeat that night after night. I’m gay myself and seeing him struggle with his identity made me quite protective of him.”
Joshua Oakes-Rogers was so keen to get the part of 20-year-old charming, mercurial runaway Josh that he learned the whole of McStay’s play before his first audition. “I had a thing for bats,” he says. “If we ever went to a zoo, my mum would find me just standing in the dark room watching them all hung above.” Oakes-Rogers is particularly taken with Vespertilio’s torchlit tunnel stage, with seats arranged along both sides. “It’s so dank, I love it!” he says. Cast and audience can hear trains rumbling overhead.
McStay and producer Jess Duxbury have consulted regularly with Joe Nunez-Mino of the Bat Conservation Trust. “He’s seen all drafts,” says Duxbury. “He’s sent us information and everyone at BCT has been so generous,. One of my favourite facts that came up when I first chatted to Joe is that he read the play and went, ‘You know the weird thing is that bats have one of the highest rates of homosexuality in any mammal.’”
“Yes!” exclaim Salter and Oakes-Rogers together. “Of course they do, they have capes!” adds Oakes-Rogers. “They’ve got drama, they’ve got height, they’ve got momentum, they are the gayest thing in the world,” laughs Salter.
One of Atkinson’s Vault shows from last year, A Hundred Words for Snow, is currently touring the country and begins a West End run in the spring. She senses that McStay’s story of bats, love and loneliness could be another breakout success. “Vespertilio has that potential,” she says. “It’s very relatable, it’s not London-centric and it’s also so compact it is easily tourable.”
While interviewing the cast, I realise I don’t actually know if the greater mouse-eared bat has been spotted again this winter. The Vespertilio cast don’t know, either. “Don’t tell me until after the show,” says Joshua. “If he hasn’t, I’ll be too busy mourning.”
“He’s alive,” says Ben. “I can feel it.”
I email to check. Good news: Britain’s most solitary animal has once again taken up residence in his Sussex tunnel for his 17th winter. The audiences for Vespertilio can rest assured. There is a real-life happy ending, this year at least.
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative.
The links are powered by Skimlinks. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that Skimlinks cookies will be set. More information.