For a whole generation, the phrase “This is 29 Acacia Road”, and the voice of Bill Oddie, will bring memories of the popular cartoon series flooding back. Bananaman appeared in print, drawn by John Geering, a few years before the animated series began, but it was the television cartoons which cemented Bananaman as a childhood favourite.
Some 30 years since the cartoon aired, and with the proposed film version seemingly abandoned, it falls to Bananaman The Musical to bring the character to a whole new generation. On the face of it, the comic strip feels like perfect fodder for a comedy musical, but does it actually work? And, can I write this review without using any banana related puns?
When studious Eric Wimp is knocked unconscious by the shard of a comet falling to earth, he discovers, with the help of a talking bird, that eating a banana transforms him from dorky teenager to muscled superhero. But, as his body mass increases, his IQ and common sense is vastly diminished, leading to a series of comical misadventures as the hero, along with Crow, Fiona and Chief O’Reilly, attempt to defeat the villains of the piece, Dr Gloom, General Blight and Mad Magician.
This may be a production borne from a comic, but don’t be fooled in to thinking this is a mere caricature, for all its silliness and absurdity this is a fully formed musical, with all the right ingredients for a hit. The score is particularly strong, while not explicitly characterized as the eighties, it certainly is reminiscent of the television series, and crucially musicals of the era. It is only let down by a couple of the ensemble numbers, which ended up sounding too cluttered.
Writer Leon Parris has remained faithful to much of what has come before, but added some new tidbits as well, the origin story is different for example, but Chief O’Reilly’s blue flashing light hat remains. The second act starts off a little weaker than the first, but soon gets back on track with “Simply Eric Wimp”, a rousing, and clearer sounding, ensemble number.
What came as a pleasant surprise, was how genuinely funny it is, classic British humour with a touch of slapstick. No vulgarity or swearing in sight (the production is aimed at ages 6+) it helped bring back a childhood innocence for everyone in the audience, indeed one very simple joke involving the character Neil had the audience splitting their sides with laughter for a good few minutes.
Of course, it isn’t the writing alone that delivered this response, the cast do a marvelous job with the material. Marc Pickering is a comic genius with his Doctor Gloom, bringing his trademark style to the fore, while TJ Lloyd is exceptionally funny as the stereotypical cop, Chief O’Reilly.
Mark Newnham’s Eric Wimp embodies the age of innocence with some touching scenes alongside mother character, played by Lizzii Hills. Jodie Jacobs employs puppetry skills as well as wonderful vocal talents in the role of Crow.
The costumes are particularly eye-catching, with Bananamans the pick of the bunch, but there would be no mistaking who any of the characters are supposed to be, even if you’ve only casually glanced at a Beano. Director Mark Perry, has paid close attention to detail to ensure the musical stays true to its comic book roots.
It would be easy to sneer at the immaturity of it all, or bemoan the lack of issue-tackling, but to do so would be to completely miss the point, this is a musical of pure fun, which takes us all back to a simpler time, where our only worries were found in five-minute cartoons. I couldn’t manage to avoid the terrible banana puns, but Bananaman The Musical definitely works on a lot of levels, this brilliant burst of yellow is the perfect way to chase away the January blues.