By Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Brisbane Festival and Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Sydney Festival. Director Simon Phillips. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 3-14 January, 2024

Reviewed : January 4, 2024*

Photo : Wenell Teodoro

Where to start? With applause firstly, lots of it, for a musical that is much more than a musical. It’s a story, told in clever writing and eclectic music performed by multi-talented artists whose charismatic characters question everything – people, politics, parenting, performing. They sing, dance, and make us think, laugh, empathise and feel good! They do so in a production that mixes three musical styles – angry punk, kiddie-pop and emotive introspection – along with satire, comedy, and heart-warming realism.

Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall have been working together for many years. Their music and lyrics have won international acclaim, including their collaboration for Muriel’s Wedding – the Musical. But Bananaland is different! Director Simon Phillips calls it “a joyful, comic romp – an outrageous satire of all the extraneous crap that anyone trying to forge a career in music faces on a day-to-day basis”.

Keir Nuttall is also a stand-up comedian, who performs as Franky Walnut, and it his quirky comedic talent that makes Bananaland special. He has created characters that have heart, who suffer, bounce back, care about each other, react to change, but are also very funny, especially as they deal with a few Australian stereotypes that Nuttall satirises skilfully.

Photo : Wenell Teodoro

The four main characters are the musicians of Kitty Litter, a heavy, punk-style band whose lead singer Ruby Semblance is angry about everything from animal rights to Clive Palmer. Kitty Litter is loud, provocative – and not doing very well, except for one lone fan, Darren, whom they call Stephen King because he looks like the horror author. When they are performing at the Manhattan (in Goondiwindi!), they are surprised to find that the Sunday performance has been sold out to an audience of children, because their angry song “Bananaland” (a protest about “Clive Palmer’s incursion into Federal politics”) has become an online kids’ hit!

Despite Ruby’s reluctance, they decide to try to make it as a children’s band, and with the help of veteran diva Mimsi Borogroves, the Wikki Wikki Wah Wahs is born. In pastels, dungarees and a dog suit, rather than black, lace and chains, the Wikkis become a hit. Their songs metamorphose into bright repetitious songs for kids, their choreography more dance moves than stamping. They are interviewed on daytime TV and are billed to open for Jessie Jam Jar and Pikelets the Cat at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney!

But the path through fame is never smooth! Darren/Stephen King gives up on them, disagreements arise, Ruby still despairs their transformation, but things work out … with a little bit of faith and a lot of love.

Photo : Wenell Teodoro

That love shines out in a production, that is pacy, perfectly timed and skilfully managed. Phillips’ direction is deft, imaginative, his vision of the production in line with what he describes as “the rhythm of the dialogue that is … both musical and comedic”.

Max McKenna is Ruby Semblance, the leader of Kitty Litter. Frustrated with the state of the world, Ruby vents her anger in heavy, angry music. But she also carries the bitterness of a disrupted childhood and McKenna finds both characteristics in a performance that blazes at times, but is compassionate, confused and moving at others. McKenna’s range, versatility and energy are stunning, their timing immaculate. They make Ruby scarily lovable and poignantly believable.

Georgina Hopson plays Karen Semblance, Ruby’s older sister and protector. Karen sings with the band, but worries about missing time with her five-year-old son Toby. Hopkins, a Conservatorium trained soprano, adds an extra operatic ‘zing’ to Kitty Litter, a sweet lilt to Wikki Wikki Wha Wha and gentle depth as she sings to her son Toby. There are some lovely scenes with Ruby where Hopkins and McKenna portray the specialness of their sibling relationship, and their “Supah Sistah Powah”.

Another member of the band, and Ruby’s lover, is Seb Kale, played by Joe Kalou. Seb is body-proud and into poses, wellness and social media, who sees himself as “so much more than just a torso”. Kalou brings wide cross-media song and dance experience to the role as well as strong character development and excellent comic timing and pace.

Similar timing and pace and cunning use of comic pause shine in the performance of Maxwell Simon as rock’n’roll enthusiast Ex, who is caught up in the thrill of touring and performing – especially if Ruby is there. Simon is particularly endearing when he becomes the Wikki Wha’s compulsory “animal” character, Dangles the Dog, whose hang dog expressions, excited whimpers and plaintiff howls are real audience pleasers.

Backing both Kitty Litter and the Wikkis are drummer and guitarist Terry and Terri, who remain poker faced throughout the production. Dressed in black and dark ‘shades’, they sustain their blank impassiveness, even as they ‘play out’ the audience and stand with the other musician for a final bow. Just another comic touch to this cleverly directed production.

Dave Eastgate, Amber McMahon and Chris Ryan, play the many other characters who populate the band’s world.

Dave Eastgate is Ron Delbridge, the ‘sound engineer’ at Goondiwindi’s Manhattan room,  who Ruby knocks out in a moment of guitar wielding rage. Rather than paying the weighty compensation Ron’s lawyers are chasing, Ruby agrees to let Ron become the Wikki’s roadie – and extra performer. Ron rises to the occasion with Eastgate’s wealth of experience across stage and screen to guide him. He is funny (a must for anyone involved in this production), athletic and looks particularly impressive in a feathery owl suit at the Wikki’s Easter Show performance.

Photo : Wenell Teodoro

Amber McMahon plays multiple characters with seemingly consummate ease. After a brief  walk-on posing with a Friday night raffle meat tray, and a few minutes of hilarity as a raunchy, drunk bride-to-be taking over the stage at her hen’s night, McMahon returns for a more sustained time as Mimsi Borogroves, Kitty Litter’s mentor and originator of the idea of Dangles the Dog. She also plays a fawning day time TV hostess, kids’ “music heavyweight” Jessie Jam Jar and the PA of a record producer. McMahon takes on all these characters with her usual accomplished style – and perfect satiric timing.

Chris Ryan too plays a raft of characters. Most appealing – and poignant – is his portrayal of Darren/Stephen King, the shy, sole fan who follows Kitty Litter unfailingly. Ryan’s hesitant, gentle Darren is lovably timid, especially when he sings about how the band empowers him. In contrast, he is bumblingly funny with a fire extinguisher at one of the Kitty Litter’s performances, excruciatingly cringe-making as a guffawing TV presenter and fluffily feline as Pikelets the Cat.

Photo : Wenell Teodoro

Bananaland is played on a set that complements the ingenuity of the writing. Designed by Simone Romanuik, it makes intelligent, imaginative use of theatrical technology. LED lighting bars hung both horizontally and vertically frame the set, flashing and moving as a distraction between scenes, while set pieces are flown down or slide across an almost black stage. Dark colours back Kitty Litter while a rainbow and vertical lights colour the Wikkis’ performances. Romanuik’s costumes are similarly imaginative – and practical, considering the energetic choreography that the actors has devised themselves. Both set and costumes are enhanced by Ben Hughe’s creative lighting.

Don’t miss this production. It’s Australian talent at its creative, thoughtful, theatrical, fun-loving best! It signifies the beginning of this year’s Sydney Festival – and if it’s any indication of things to come, January 2024 is going to rock!

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening Performance