Wednesday 27 December 2017

Theatre review: Bananaman

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Bananaman is having its press night late in its run, presumably for reasons of Christmas.

Southwark Playhouse has looked to Japanese comics in the past for its Christmas family show, but this year it's found a superhero closer to home. Based on a character created by David Donaldson in 1980 (his first-ever comic strip is reprinted in the programme) who appeared in various British comics as well as the famous TV cartoon voiced by The Goodies, Bananaman now gets his own musical written and composed by Leon Parris. Eric Wimp (Mark Newnham) is a nerdy 16-year-old who's bullied at school and can't pluck up the courage to ask out his friend Fiona (Emma Ralston.) But one night, while he's out watching the skies, a shard from a comet falls to earth, knocking him out. When he wakes up he finds that every time he eats a banana he transforms into Bananaman (Matthew McKenna,) a superhero with the muscles of twenty men, and the brains of twenty mussels.

The comet shard also gives a Crow (Jodie Jacobs) the ability to speak, and she quickly sets herself up as Eric/Bananaman's sidekick.

The shard clearly has great powers that could be turned to evil, and Eric is soon trying to keep it away from the supervillain trio of General Blight (Carl Mullaney,) the Mad Magician (Brian Gilligan) and, worst of all, Dr Gloom (Marc Pickering, for whom incredibly silly musicals are fast becoming a speciality.) And this is all incredibly silly, right from everyone's inability to notice that Dr Gloom has kidnapped the kids' teacher and replaced him (how exactly this is meant to help him break into the police station and steal the shard is anyone's guess.)

But then this is a gleeful collection of daft plots and traps for the villains to set and the heroes to unfailingly fall into, and Mark Perry's production captures the spirit of classic British comics like the Beano, with help from Mike Leopold's designs, particularly the costumes (supervised by Daisy Woodroffe & Nia Evans.) Details like Chief O'Reilly's (TJ Lloyd) fully-functioning blue light on his policeman's hat really sell the idea of stepping into the particular sense of humour of the comics I grew up reading. There's also just enough of a modern sensibility though - in keeping with the way the comics never really change, the setting is technically a present-day one with vlogs and selfie-sticks, but there's still the feel of an imaginary 1960s; I did like how Fiona wasn't willing to let the boys have all the fun, constantly objecting to being put into a stereotypical damsel-in-distress role.

So undoubtedly the nostalgia element is one thing being catered for (as evidenced by the two people in Bananaman outfits sitting next to us in the front row,) but Parris and Perry haven't forgotten to make this a show for everyone, and this works best, as it should, as a kids' show: Plenty had been brought along to tonight's performance, and while one or two seemed a bit nonplussed, the majority seemed to be having a ball (one little kid in particular had one of the most joyous reactions I've seen from someone who will hopefully become a theatre fan off the back of this.)

The songs won't be giving Lin-Manuel Miranda sleepless nights but they're as much fun as everything else going on here, with the full cast and creatives throwing everything into a project that feels like a lot of love and care have gone into it. This isn't an evening of great surprises, because it's everything you'd want a Bananaman musical to be, 160 minutes of a big silly grin on the faces of adults and children alike.

Bananaman by Leon Parris is booking until the 20th of January at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith.

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