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Southwark Playhouse, London

The month or so from about half way through December to half way through January is an important time for theatres, for this is the period when people who might not have a theatre-going habit for the rest of the year venture out in search of suitable festive entertainment.

It’s to Southwark Playhouse’s credit therefore that instead of offering up a pantomime, or a show with a proven track record of getting bums on seats, they should have programmed a completely new work, Bananaman – The Musical.

For those unfamiliar with this particular superhero, he first appeared in a cartoon strip in the comic ‘Nutty’ in 1980. From 1983 to 1986 there was also a TV cartoon series which ran on the BBC. The forty episodes made were re-run between 1989 and 1997, so on paper at least there should be a ready-made audience aged between about twenty-five and fifty.

I’ll admit that even though I was never a particular fan myself I was nevertheless intrigued, if not actively excited, to see how they’d make the leap from two to three dimensions.

The answer seems to be rather awkwardly, and as he has written the book, the music, and the lyrics, the blame must lie squarely with Leon Parris, more of which later.

However, the show has a fine cast, led by Mark Pickering as Dr Gloom, the evil genius bent on world domination. There’s some good comedic dialogue for Dr Gloom, especially in Act Two, and Pickering’s timing is exemplary.

Bananaman himself is the alter ego of Eric Wimp (think Superman and Clark Kent) though unlike, well, just about any superhero you could think of, Eric (Marc Newnham) doesn’t actually transform, but is ‘replaced’ by Bananaman (Matthew McKenna) in a genuinely impressive superhero costume which stands out as being where the budget looks to have been spent on this otherwise rather ‘under-funded-looking’ production.

Dr Gloom has an equally despicable sidekick in the form of General Blight (the hilarious Carl Mullaney), and there’s an interesting bit of puppetry from Jodie Jacobs as a crow. Like I said, strong cast.

So, what’s the problem? Well, it’s partly to do with approach, and partly to do with craft.

It isn’t at all clear to me who the show is aimed at. On the evening I attended there were quite a lot of young children in the audience who’d been brought along presumably because of their parents’ fond recollections of the cartoon series. That was indeed the case with the woman sitting to my left, and she enjoyed the show, though at over two hours long her kids were restless before the end of act One, and asleep not long after the interval.

As to craft? It feels to me as if the show needs another six months work. The structure of the book is patchy, to say the least, partly as a result of the first half of Act One needing to be used to turn Eric Wimp into Bananaman. The first fifteen minutes doesn’t work structurally, meaning the audience loses its emotional connection with the story which is, anyway, episodic – events happen without there being either a need for them or a consequence to them. However, the situation improves markedly in Act Two.

Most of all, however, if there’s one thing that holds the show back it’s the lyrics which are often badly rhymed, or not rhymed at all for no good reason.

Having said that, I’m going to praise Parris’ dialogue which can be clever, snappy, and often hilarious. Dr Doom’s bid for world domination when faced with a man called Niall had me in stitches.

There’s a good show deep inside trying to get out. I hope the writer can summon up the humility to realise what needs to be done.

  • Musical
  • Book, Music, & Lyrics: Leon Parris
  • Starring: Marc Pickering, Carl Mullaney, Jodie Jacobs, Lizzii Hills, Mark Newnham, Emma Ralston, TJ Lloyd, Matthew McKenna, Brian Gilligan, Chris McGuigan, Amy Perry.
  • Southwark Playhouse, London
  • Until 20th January 2018

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