Bananaland (Brisbane Festival and QPAC) – theatre review

Bananaland opens in the wake of Covid’s decimation of the performing arts sector. Only the determined can survive, and lead singer of Kitty Litter, 21-year-old Ruby Semblance (Maz McKenna) is certainly determined… uncompromising in her pursuit to have society wake up and also realise her unconventional onstage artistry. It’s all quite tongue-in-cheek as along with big sister Karen (Georgina Hopson), henchmen Ex (Simon Maxwell) and Seb (Joe Kalou), as well as unassuming (but audience favourites) Terry and Terri on bass and drums, she commits to her journey to higher purpose activism according to the philosophy of Yoko Ono, until …

After an unusual sold-old gig at Goondiwindi’s ‘hottest live music venue’, the group discovers their song ‘Bananaland’ has made it to the iTunes kids’ top 10. Unlike their long-time, true fan Stephen King (Chris Ryan), rather than listeners regarding it as its intended appraisal of Clive Palmer’s venture into federal politics, it seems the condemnation of power structures is being seen as a celebration of a magical land of free fruit. And so in sell out buy-in to the commercial music industry world they proffer to loathe, Kitty Litter converts to being kids band the Wikki-Wikki Wah-Wahs, with reworked songs without so much agenda and industrial complex metaphors. Screaming songs about maintaining the rage and smashing the patriarchy are morphed into convincing children’s numbers, all with lyrics and music from Keir Nuttall and Kate Miller-Heidke.

Photos – Darren Thomas

Bananaland is easily accessible in both its commentary on counter-culture and the humour of its dialogue, with Nuttall’s book containing a number of funny lines around geographic and generational confusion. While a lot of time is given to Act One’s establishment of deliberately archetypal characters, however, comparatively, the show’s conclusion appears a little rushed in its final twist.

With her ‘anything could happen’, impossible dream idealism, Ruby may be our intended hero, but her desire to fight the good fight to save the world isn’t fully fleshed out in terms of motivation, meaning that we aren’t always along for the ride of her crisis of conscience around abandoning her values. Still, McKenna (who played Muriel in the premiere season of P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding The Musical for which Miller-Heidke and Kier Nuttall also composed original music) is excellent, especially vocally, in belt of Ruby’s ‘Fallback’ powerful and emotional anthem of resistance to the sensible and well-making folk who consider her ambitions to be unrealistic.

Hopson gives a similar Act One musical highlight in her powerful ballad ‘Toby’ about motherhood and longing to be home with her young son. And when they duet in a late-show ‘Let it Go’ type central-relationship number, ‘Grow Up and Be Kids’, the result is truly impressive. In complement of this, the pair is also authentic in conveyance of their characters’ sibling relationship through call-backs to growing-up ‘super-sister power’ dance routines, but also knowledge of how best to trigger the other towards hurt.

This is one of the few moments of realism within the hyper-real world of Bananaland, which is appearing in world premiere as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival. Indeed, although inspired by real experiences in the music industry, there is an over-the-top campiness to the characterisation that brings many audience laughs. Ryan, especially, is brilliantly versatile in a range of roles, but none more memorable than the all-too-familiar morning television host Tony.

Under Simon Phillips’ direction there is a lightness that permeates all aspects of the production’s satire. Choreography works a treat, not only in the angry, angular moments of protest song performances like ‘The Trial of Simon Cowell’ and ‘Consumerist Pig’, but also in the story’s move-along through, for example, very-regional bar manager Ron’s (Dave Eastgate) setup of things for the band’s Kitty Litter gig, and the chaos of a hens night concert outing, where we meet the first of Amber McMahon’s many entertaining exaggerated characterisations.

Joy Weng and Terry McKibbin’s nuanced sound design similarly moves things along by giving us aural depiction of the spaces of the narrative through echo and alike. And just as Simone Romanuik’s costumes go from gothic garb to zesty brights as the band transforms, Ben Hughes’s lighting rages us through the angry reds of Kitty’s Litter’s protest performances to ultimately warm us towards a concluding titular tune.

In the landscape of another Mamma Mia and upcoming return of Chicago, it’s certainly refreshing to see something new on the Australian stage, especially a musical such as Bananaland which is so unashamedly Australian. There’s a real Muriel’s Wedding feel to the freshness of the show’s sounds, but still, few songs resonate beyond the closing curtain, even the bubble-gum earworms performed by the Wikki-Wikki Wah-Wahs. The various solo, duet and ensemble pieces are full of colour and movement, but there are also moments when characters get to sing from the heart, meaning that there is still likely something for everyone to enjoy in its score.

Bananaland is at the Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane until 1 October 2023

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane

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