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Bananaman the Musical review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘uneven, but fun’

The cast of Bananaman the Musical at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Pamela Raith The cast of Bananaman the Musical at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Pamela Raith
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Originally appearing in Nutty Comics, then the Beano, and best known as a 1980s cartoon series voiced by the Goodies, Bananaman is a loving mockery of serious superheroes.

Now Bananaman faces his greatest challenge yet: being turned into a musical. The result is mixed. It’s very funny and contains a couple of great tunes, but it’s puffy and uneven too.

Leon Parris, responsible for book, music and lyrics, keeps all the elements of the original – weedy Eric Wimp gains superpowers when he eats a banana – but has padded out Bananaman’s backstory and changed the love interest. Fiona is not a newsreader, she’s an investigative journalist. It’s overly padded though, with the production bloating particularly in the middle. Stories that the TV cartoon dealt with in five minute episodes, the musical takes two and a half hours to resolve.

Parris’ songs are all jaunty, jingle-style pieces set to piano, bass guitar and drums, with a lot of silly wordplay in a WS Gilbert mode. But since characters tend to hold on to particular themes throughout the show, the initially bouncy music begins to wear a little thin on its umpteenth iteration. Parris also has a tendency to build many of the songs to big climaxes as numerous characters sing lines across each other – the resulting musical mulch is too much.

But, taken as a whole, Mark Perry’s production is a really joyful, really funny and impressively polished , with a couple of great numbers standing out: the Bananaman theme remains brilliant despite its overuse here, and a Time Warp-esque dance number called Doom and Gloom also impresses.

Gawky Mark Newnham and dashing Matthew McKenna make a perfect pair as Eric Wimp and his charming but thick alter ego. McKenna has a cut glass accent and a dimple drawn onto his chin with pen; there’s a dorky quality to him too – somewhere between Dave Gorman and Nicholas Parsons. With muscles.

Marc Pickering continues to be a fantastic musical theatre performer, playing Dr Gloom as a consummate dastardly villain: silly voice, bottle-bottom glasses, jerky movements. He’s a cartoon personified, and he and McKenna really propel the show.

However, they’re playing on an inelegant set which judders and clatters. The production tries to make light of the clumsy scene changes, incorporating them into the humour of the piece, but it doesn’t work. Bananaman was never graceless in the way it was put together, as this production occasionally is. Design-wise, it all feels quite homemade.

Mike Leopold’s costumes are just brilliant though, from Bananaman’s bulging blue and yellow spandex to the chorus dressed like the Bash Street Kids, with bobble hats and scruffy school ties.

Most of the time the musical really holds on to the spirit of the cartoon. With a bit of judicious peeling and chopping, it could be a really strong new British musical.

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Verdict
Funny, but uneven new British musical based on the classic 1980s cartoon
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