Sydney Festival 2024: Bananaland

Jackie McMillan
5th Jan 2024

Confession: musicals aren’t really my thing. While others lean in when they hear the telltale inflection that a character is about to burst into song, I tend to sigh and wish the plot would move along. The boredom might be, in part, from the way that so many Australian musicals tread familiar ground, reproducing stories we’ve already seen ad nauseam on the big screen. There’s often an element of cultural cringe attached to them too: are these caricatures of being Australian really the images of ourselves we want to present to the world? 

With lyrics and music by Kate Miller-Heidke and husband, Keir Nuttall, Bananaland neatly turned all my anxiety on its head. Premiering last night at Riverside Theatres ahead of today’s Sydney Festival launch, this unashamedly Australian musical is both new and exciting. It’s set in the here-and-now with Miller-Heidke and Nuttall writing what they know: touring in a crippled live music industry that is struggling to regain footing after the COVID-19 pandemic. The story centres around a punk protest band, Kitty Litter - loosely modelled on Pussy Riot - who go on tour, bringing their “onstage conceptual art slash music-oriented happening” to rural venues that aren’t au fait with songs about Simon Cowell’s (America’s Got Talent) crimes against art and greedy consumerist pigs. When one of their songs, the namesake Bananaland, goes viral on the kids’ music charts, Kitty Litter finally get an audience, but struggle to connect with their new fans when they disembowel a stuffed pig on stage. 

The financial imperative quickly becomes clear: it’s time for Kitty Litter to drop the political protest songs and make its COVID-19 pivot into children’s music. Lead singer, Ruby Semblance, played by the fabulous Max McKenna, struggles to make the jump. And to be fair, songs about dominatrixes don’t easily translate to the language of kids. But there’s precedent for this story: The Wiggles started off as a rock band called the Cockroaches, and recycled some of their old songs, and former Machine Gun Fellatio singer KK Juggy (Christa Hughes) segued from sexual simulation to all-ages shows about farts and other bodily sounds. Helping Ruby make the jump is her sister, Karen (Georgina Hopson), their strong sisterhood inspiring one of the best duets of the night. Hopson also belts out Toby, a poignant solo about missing her five-year-old son, perhaps inspired by Miller-Heidke’s own life experience as a touring mother. By the end of the show, the sheer, overwhelming vocal talent of these two stars retrained me to actually look forward to these characters bursting into song. 

Beyond the music, Bananaland is also cleverly written, taking plenty of strikes at the music industry, the wellness industry, and Instagram influencers via pot shots mostly levelled at Joe Kalou, who plays lead Kitty Litter guitarist, Seb Kale. There’s a certain irony in a Hi-5 star appearing in a show that states: “Hi-5 is worse than ISIS.” Stagecraft is also a highlight, from lighting (Ben Hughes), to set design and costumes (Simone Romaniuk). And in case you’re worried Bananaland is too right-on social justice warrior, there’s plenty of ribald humour thrown in. Amber McMahon who plays Mimsi Borogroves, Jessie Jam Jar and a host of other characters is a particular comedic standout. Bananaland is the best sung musical I’ve seen with a powerful underlying message that I’ll leave you to uncover.