Pros: The quality of the cast and the overwhelming response from the audience.
Cons: The musical numbers were too loud, which made the lyrics harder to grasp.
Being from Italy, I didn’t have the privilege of growing up with Bananaman and, until about a week ago, I had never heard of him. Would you believe that? However, before going to see this musical, I did my homework; I watched the watchable and read the readable about the silliest of superheroes, who allegedly displays ‘the muscles of twenty men and the brains of twenty mussels’. This helped me to understand the ecstatic reaction of the audience, who literally went bananas when the man himself first appeared on stage, embodied by the brawny Matthew McKenna.
In this rewritten version by Leon Parris, we first get to know Eric Wimp, played by the lively Mark Newnham, a schoolboy with a low self-esteem who lives with his mother (Lizzii Hills). Other than trying to survive Mrs Wimp’s terrible cooking, Eric spends his days chatting to his pet crow, who is suitably named Crow and impersonated by exceptional singer and skilled puppeteer Jodie Jacobs. The young boy is also madly in love with his classmate Fiona, portrayed by the small and mighty Emma Ralston, an inquisitive mind who gets an empowering feminist makeover.
One evening, Eric invites Fiona to watch the passage of a comet, but is struck by its fall before the girl can join him. When he wakes up, he’s no longer the boy he once was. Instead, every time he eats a banana, he transforms into a superhero, and he starts collaborating with Chief O’Reilly to keep the town safe. Of course, you can’t be a superhero without some arch enemies. In Bananaman’s case, these are Doctor Gloom, brilliantly depicted by the exhilarating Marc Pickering, and Carl Mullaney’s General Blight, who is practically a camp caricature of Hitler.
All cast members display remarkable performing skills, making even more unnecessary the excessive amplification, which corrupts the delivery of the lyrics. In the medium sized auditorium of the Southwark Playhouse, sound designer Andrew Johnson should have opted for a more discrete approach and relied more on the space’s natural amplification.
The musical score is catchy though, drawing from the classical ballroom repertoire as well as East-European folk and more theatrical pieces. My absolute favourite was Breakfast, a two-hander executed by the villains. It demonstrates Parris’s ability as a wordsmith, as much as a composer. The set design is a success as well: comic stripes cover the back wall, with clever lighting enhancing the cartoonish tints of the costumes and props.
Offering a pastiche of the most well-known episodes with a great dose of comic slapstick, and a timeless recipe of fast-paced choreography and relentless physical work, Bananaman the Musical is a treat for all those children who grew up in the 80s and are currently trapped in the body of a 30-something.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Leon Parris
Director: Mark Perry
Choreographer: Grant Murphy
Producer: Sightline Entertainment in association with Cahoots Theatre Company and Beano Studios
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking Link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/bananaman/#details
Booking Until: 20 January 2018