Bananaman: The Musical, Southwark Playhouse, London ★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

If you thought pantomime season was over for another year, think again. Southwark Playhouse’s latest musical Bananaman, based on the DC Thompson comic strip that now resides in the Beano after life in the now-defunct stablemates Nutty and the Dandy, is firmly in the over-the-top, child-friendly silly comedy vein.

The source material started out as a parody of superhero comic books, with puny schoolboy Eric Wimp transforming into a muscle-bound hero every time he eats a banana. Unfortunately, Eric’s super identity is also super dense: he may have the muscles of twenty men (“twenty big men”) , but he also possesses the brains of twenty mussels.

This aspect of the character is captured well by Leon Parris’s knowing adaptation, which encompasses an origin story for the character as well as bringing in a roster of characters from both the original strips and the TV animations from the mid-1980s. Parris takes the TV character of journalist Fiona and turns her into a schoolgirl vlogger (Emma Ralston), whose fascination with the Spandex-clad superhero gets in the way of wimpy Eric’s obvious affections for her.

Mark Newnham’s Eric is disarmingly sweet, while Matthew McKenna’s Bananaman both looks the part and hits all the comedic notes afforded to him by the script. Both are eclipsed, though, by Marc Pickering’s Doctor Gloom, a superbly realised supervillain whose characterisation transcends all else. The comic’s bigger antagonist, General Blight, is reduced to Gloom’s sidekick in this stage adaptation, only really developing a decent characterisation in the second act due to some frenetic dancing by Carl Mullaney.

But while Pickering’s performance is strong enough to sell some of the show’s silliness, it cannot compensate for a set design that looks cheap even by fringe standards. When combined with some lacklustre (and, in places, downright confusing) direction, the show’s attempts at poking fun and being silly come across instead as slapdash. The worst example of this is a sequence in which Fiona is supposedly in mortal peril, suspended by rope over a piranha tank while gagged and bound. To even attempt such a feat is audacious within a fringe show, but it’s never exactly clear that Fiona is in much danger at all, as Ralston appears just be standing still next to a piece of flimsy string.

Musically, Parris’s songs benefit from a cast that is never less than completely committed – none more than Jodie Jacobs as the talking crow who becomes Eric/Bananaman’s confidante and sidekick. Unfortunately, there is a preponderance of bombastic numbers with multiple overlapping vocals, which serves neither the characters nor the audience, many songs descending into a barrage of tuneful noise. The second act offers glimpses of more characterful moments, with a touching duet between Jacobs and Newnham that deconstructs some of the clichés around comic book movie and stage adaptations. But such moments are too sparse.

Grant Murphy choreographs the ensemble with a pleasingly knowing eye, helping make up for the show’s other visual failings. Ultimately, though, this is a show which isn’t quite child-focussed enough to be a great family show, nor knowing enough to be a witty parody. There remains enough in the script for a future version to address this production’s obvious flaws, though, and there are sufficient flashes of what could be to just about satisfy the audience,