The audience on press night, of whatever age, seemed well satisfied, but if Bananaman is to have a life-span beyond this season of special good will for this kind of fare, then it may need further work and revision: at present the qualities of company and production are covering over the weaknesses of parts of the content.
For anyone growing up in the early 1980s Bananaman will be a familiar memory as a comic strip and later a television cartoon series too. It took the conventions of Superman and Batman and reinvented them. While the blue and yellow spandex and billowing cape were a visual carry-over, this time we were not in Gotham City but the suburban setting of Acacia Road, where nothing ever happens, and where our anti-hero Eric Wimp is helping out his mother on her fruit stall, while dodging her unpredictable cooking and failing to connect with his love-interest, wannabe journalist, Fiona. Into these placid waters comes the ‘Man of Peel’ generated unpredictably after a comet lands in the vicinity, and prone to reappear to rescue imminent disaster whenever Eric consumes a banana.
The original, in other words, was a gentle piece of wistful British eccentricity that tweaked the conventions of a well-known genre and offered some gentle escapism for bored teenagers, and some truly dreadful puns. It was of the same vintage as the Adrian Mole stories and exploring a similar brand of humour, though without Mole’s historic staying power.
What it lacked was a strongly characterised set of villains or a well-developed narrative line and these are essential additions for any successful musical adaptations. Leon Parris has written music, lyrics and book here, building on his earlier success in adapting children’s classics, but the overall outcome is mixed.
The best aspect of this adaptation, and the best two acting opportunities thereby provided, is the development of the characters of the two villains, Dr Gloom and General Blight. A basic plot is provided through their plan for world domination, and a lot of imagination has gone into their disguises, ruses, gadgetry and machinations. And while it may not always be true that the ‘devil has the best tunes’, these two certainly have the most dramatically memorable numbers, which owe a substantial debt to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, no bad pedigree.
Elsewhere the results are less convincing. There is simply too much blandness among the regular inhabitants of Acacia Road that no amount of pratfalls and slapstick can conceal. Subverting super-heroes works fine on the page, but it creates dramatic problems when the central figure is really too ineffectual and passive to provide much more than innocent charm and a lot of visual gags.
A little of this goes a long way, and as a result there are periods of torpor, especially in the first half when the action and script are becalmed and it is only the furious paddling of the actors and stage crew that keeps the ship moving forward at all. Things are tighter in the second half, and one has to wonder whether a shorter and better musical with no interval is waiting to emerge from this particular incarnation. At 150 minutes it is simply far too long an evening.
Part of the problem also resides in a familiar difficulty with shows at this time of year: who is the intended target audience? There are a few witty lines but everything is inhibited by a degree of circumspection in the writing which is trying to offer something to adults and children, without really satisfying the appetites of either constituency, and fearful of offending both.
As usual these days at Southwark the production values are excellent. That the evening is not even longer is thanks to the rapid changes between the many scenes, which could easily come a cropper but never did. Director Mark Perry and set designer Mike Leopold create plenty of opportunities for action on a split level stage with a nifty collapsible staircase bridging the gap.
Grant Murphy choreographs some neat and nimble routines with very little space to work with (taking out row ‘A’ would make a lot of difference in this regard, but presumably box office demands nix that possibility); and the special effects whether of sound and light perform on cue and impressively.
There are some problems with the musical side of things which should improve as the run progresses. The band, under Alan Berry’s leadership, play incisively, but the sound balance is unfortunately out of alignment for many of the very wordy songs, where less would not just be more, but just essential if the text is to be heard.
Again the villains fare best: whether it is in the writing or in the more measured delivery of the actors they manage to get their message across with sardonic flair, whereas quite a few of those on the side of righteousness fail to register sufficiently. The voices are strong, but the relentless quality of much of the composition makes many of the numbers blend into one another in emotional tone and word-heavy congestion.
There are no real weak links in the cast, but some players cope better with the constraints than others. Doubtless it is not the intention of the show, but the real hero, who gets the warmest reception, is Marc Pickering’s Doctor Gloom. He projects charming malevolence and witty sarcasm with ease, and dances, sings and machinates with an unmatched authority and precision.
There are camp hints of Frank-n-furter in his aura and that is no bad thing at all. His delivery of A Call to Action, the best song by far, was the high-point of the show.
He was ably assisted by Carl Mullaney as General Blight, who seemed to be basing his megalomaniac performance on George C. Scott’s Patton. His double act with Pickering was a delight, and delightfully differentiated too. In a wholly different way, Jodie Jacobs as the talking-bird, Crow, injected vigour and vim into proceedings at various key points and displayed great technical skill and stamina in manipulating the puppet.
Matthew McKenna did his best in the potassium-fuelled title role, but the dim, cardboard nature of the character left him sadly underused.
The denizens of Acacia Road worked gamely with this material but it was hard work all the same: Emma Ralston and Lizzii Hills did their best to escape comic strip stereotypes with strong independent female roles that avoided ‘damsel in distress’ tropes.
T.J. Lloyd did a strong impersonation of the genial, if obtuse, policeman trying to maintain order and suffering many indignities along the way. Mark Newnham embodied sulky teenager Eric with an appropriately grudging air, but had a tendency to sing just under the note that jarred a little over an evening.
The audience on press night, of whatever age, seemed well satisfied, but if this musical is to have a life-span beyond this season of special good will for this kind of fare, then it may need further work and revision: at present the qualities of company and production are covering over the weaknesses of parts of the content.