Bananaman review – can Eric Wimp turn into a musical superhero?

Southwark Playhouse, London
After some banana-skin slip-ups, this comedy about the spotty teenager turned caped blunderer gathers some final, resounding laughter

Bananaman, the blundering superhero with a cape of yellow peel, previously seen in the Beano and his own BBC cartoon series in the 80s, flies clumsily into this new musical by Leon Parris.

After being knocked out by a falling shard of meteorite, spotty teenager Eric Wimp (played with gawky charm by Mark Newnham) finds himself split in two. His clothes and self-confidence still sag, but whenever Eric eats a banana, his muscles rip and his IQ shrinks as he transforms into Bananaman (played by Matthew McKenna, complete with banana-tipped horns). As floppy villains chase the powerful meteor shard, Eric hopes to impress wannabe reporter Fiona (Emma Ralston), and so reluctantly gets his five-a-day and bounds into adventure.

In its original form, Bananaman lovingly parodied the silver age of comic books, but this musical’s sloppy slapstick and over-egged puns lack much of the slick wit and wordplay of the TV cartoon and the vivid design of the comic strip. Dipping into parody but still clinging to standard superhero cliche, it’s not until after the interval that this silly show finds any not-so-secret powers.

With half-hearted panto charm, the musical fits together about as well as Eric’s clothes. The script misses the opportunity for anything below surface level and, although there is a stellar live band, the repetitive songs rely too heavily on the cartoon’s theme tune and overlaid melodies turn into a splurge of sound rather than giving a sense of different character narratives.

The real hero is the marvellous Marc Pickering as Dr Gloom, the deliciously mischievous villain who trips over his own words and feet while concocting his evil plans, but still has enough heart to bring biscuits to meetings. Dr Gloom’s dynamism leaves little space for fellow villain General Blight (Carl Mullaney), who flails desperately for power, and only comes into his own in a hilarious but incomprehensible dance scene towards the end.

The supporting cast do well with muddled direction. In a rare instance of puppetry detracting from a show, Bananaman’s sidekick Crow is a messy addition and a waste of Jodie Jacobs, who is otherwise one of the strongest performers. TJ Lloyd as the bumbling Chief O’Reilly and Ralston as the courageous Jodie also stand out.

It’s the final standoff in Mark Perry’s uneven production that receives the longest laughs, with juvenile jokes entirely unrelated to the plot causing fits of hysterics. Bananaman may seem trite to younger viewers who can’t lean back on nostalgia, but stick with it and the second bite offered by this new musical is a real treat.


Kate Wyver

The GuardianTramp

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