REVIEW: Bananaman, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭

Bananaman the musical at Southwark Playhouse
The company of Bananaman the musical

Southwark Playhouse,
4th January 2017
3 Stars
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Time and again people try to breathe musical theatre life into cartoon strip sources and the results are almost never quite what people hope them to be.  Probably only ‘Annie’ has been a (nearly) completely successful transformation of the format, and then undoubtedly because it benefits from something that most comic strips lack: a strong, clearly defined central narrative.  And, even then, there is a marked clunkiness to the script, compared to the fleet-a-foot charm of its delicious score.

How much less secure, by comparison, is the terrain offered by this latter-day confect, based on a comic story launched in the 1980s but sounding for all the world as if it had sprung fully formed from the bosom of the national psyche a good three decades or more earlier, so hopelessly out of date are its preconceptions and stereotypes.  Why then, one might wonder, would one wish to travail over years to try and make a go of it with a musicalisation of the story?  Leon Parris, responsible for the whole of this offering, is clearly obsessive about his subject, and it is the director, Mark Perry’s, stated aim in the programme to recreate the ‘warm, fuzzy feeling’ he gets from the original comic stories.  Well, that’s a laudable aim, but is it necessarily a ‘dramatic’ one?  When first shown to the public at the last ‘From Page To Stage Festival’ before one in the intimate Tristan Bates Theatre, the semi-staged rehearsed reading was prolix but often jolly entertaining.  Since then, we are given to understand that much ‘work’ has been done to it.  Sadly, in that process, much of the vim and sparkle of the story seems to have been bled out of it.

Going to the results of what is on show in the staging of this work in Southwark, one can only wonder how this came to be. Single-minded and single-handed, the writer has added to the published material a few tunes, which are repeated often enough to really lodge in the memory.  Parris is a man not lacking in accomplishment.  There is no way you will be able to leave the theatre without being able to sing back at least one of his tunes, the upwardly arpeggiating title song, so relentlessly often and so insistently is it reprised.  The songs, however, remain jingles rather than motifs, despite the best efforts of Alan Berry’s restless musical supervision, busy orchestrations and sometimes complex vocal arrangements.  Meanwhile, the abundant lyrics carry much of the essential exposition at the start of the show, which is problematic when directed ‘out front’, with two thirds of the audience seated at the sides, and with two voices singing over, rather than with, each other, and against a rather loud band (MD is Mal Hall, and sound is by Andrew Johnson).  Director Perry is responsible for this, of course, and I can’t think why: it really doesn’t help a show if it never becomes clear who the characters are, where they are from, and why they are doing what they are doing.  This is such a shame, because a lot of the spoken text is very funny.  Alas, the jokes are not paced properly; they keep coming, but they never seem to latch onto any clearly defined and accessible ‘tone’.

Bananaman the musical at Southwark Playhouse
Carl Mulaney (General Blight) and Marc Pickering (Dr Gloom) in Bananaman

Such short-comings are no fault of the extremely well chosen and able cast.  This is very much the show of the villain (as it was at the Tristan Bates), with Marc Pickering doing an expert ‘turn’ as Doctor Gloom.  Matthew McKenna seems to have absorbed much of the design budget in his extremely high spec outfit as the title character (set and costumes are by Mike Leopold, who gives us a bright, cheerful world, and keeps the brief scenes merging effortlessly into each other with the minimum of fuss): he certainly cuts a splendidly macho figure, so magnificently developed in his physique, in every respect, indeed, that any sense of parodying the DC superhero comics stable is rather lost: he becomes, instead, like so many characters of that genre, a rather homo-erotic fantasy figure, and in a show where the transformative agent is the eating of a banana, well… one can only wonder out of what rich and strange personality this presence first emanated.

Around this stunning yellow-and-blue creation circulate a number of much more prosaic souls.  Eric Wimp, the leadenly unimaginatively named kid with the appetite for curved yellow fruit is none other than Mark Newnham, whose hairy legs confirm his fully grown-up status, and whose mum, Lizzii Hills seems hardly old enough to have produced him: yet, she suffers the awful, sexist caricature of a part offered to her with astonishing aplomb.  Her single infant has a self-avowed side-kick in the shape of Jodie Jacobs’ efficiently wise-cracking Crow.  Again, these are great performers, who are guaranteed to get the laughs, but time and again they seem to be working terribly hard to get something in the air that simply refuses to take off.  Emma Roulston puts in a vocally impressive performance as the love interest, Fiona, and it is quite thrilling in its way, but the material just won’t do her talents justice.  Carl Mullaney as General Blight, T J Lloyd as Chief O’Reilly, Brian Gilligan as the Mad Magician and Chris McGuigan and Amy Perry as the ensemble make up the rest of the cast, and they all put in solid, comic-book style efforts.  The more slapstick elements of the show work best, with much fun to be gained from some silly prat falls and daft behaviour.  The dance moves are furnished by Grant Murphy (also associate director), but they rarely show his best quality.  We can say that the whole thing is lit rather well by Mike Robertson.

Nevertheless, overall the show just never finds its feet.  It can be enjoyed in a simplistic way, but that undercuts its genuinely witty and imaginative side that you so much want to give yourself over to, and yet which resolutely remains irritatingly just out of focus, and out of reach.  The kids will be somewhat amused by it, and you may enjoy the quips, but it probably won’t be a holiday show to remember for long.

Until 20 January 2018


View production photos from Bananaman

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