Book: Alan Parker
Music and Lyrics: Paul Williams
Director: Sean Holmes
Theatre Royal Bath and Birmingham Rep’s much admired touring revival of 2015 Lyric Hammersmith hit Bugsy Malone finally arrives in London, and a sparky and appealing dollop of escapism it certainly is. While the show, particularly in form of the seven child leads, sometimes struggles to make itself heard in the cavernous Alexandra Palace Theatre, this appealing family-focussed musical is never less than a pleasure to look at.
It is 1929. Local gangster and speakeasy king Fat Sam (Albie Snelson with the propulsive rhythm to his voice of a young Donald Trump) runs a disreputable and insalubrious basement dive club, hidden beneath the mean and lawless streets of Manhattan. Unfortunately for Fat Sam, this seedy enclave of flappers and hoodlums is about to be upended by a step change in weapons technology. The reliably lethal custard pie has been superseded by new-fangled splurge guns. Opposing mobster Dandy Dan (Desmond Cole) corners the market in the new tech and spies an opportunity to take over Fat Sam’s territory, eliminating his arch-rival into the bargain. The only way Sam is going to survive is by getting his very own consignment of splurge guns. Easier said than done of course and there are messy ambushes galore to enjoy on the journey. Hit by lethal splurges the victims depart this mortal coil with a winsome “Aw Man..”, of which there are plenty to be heard.
Into to the mix comes the cocksure, conceited but lovable former boxer Bugsy Malone (a diminutive but pugnaciously spirited Gabriel Payne) and naïve aspiring showgirl Blousey (Mia Lakha). The budding romance between the two is complicated by the presence of Bugsy’s onetime sweetheart Tallulah (Jasmine Sakyiama with a sophisticated and impressive vocal range for such a young actor). Fat Sam has a favour or two to call in, too. Will Bugsy and Blousey get that new start in Hollywood they both deserve?
There are three sets of alternating children in the central roles supported by a hard-working ensemble of thirteen adults (many of whom are on their first professional contracts). Director Sean Holmes sensibly assigns most of the ambitious choreography and physical theatre to the grown-ups, leaving the kids to drive the story forward through dialogue and song. It is a balance that probably works better in a smaller space. It is undoubtedly a pleasure to see Alexandra Palace’s huge proscenium stage in use, as many shows there are produced in-the-round with the action in the auditorium. But there are times, particularly in the exposition-heavy first half, where the sheer size and associated acoustic challenges of the stage makes it hard to hear what the younger actors are saying. The show has momentum, but despite valiant efforts the comic detail in the dialogue every so often gets lost.
Gripes with the sound aside, Bugsy Malone looks gorgeous. Jon Bausor’s speakeasy set, black brickwork fronted by a rusty iron staircase, captures the decadent feel of a subterranean demi-monde. Magically lit mostly in stark white by lighting designer Phil Gladwell, this is a cartoonish version of a speakeasy for sure, but it is one that carries a hint of menace. There is a feeling that dark things happen here. Bausor’s costumes, dapper sharp-shouldered suits for the men, and tasselled, sequined, green-gold flapper dresses for the women, add a suitably louche touch. The showgirls all wear ostrich feathers in their hats. One gets the sense that, by good or ill, they have earned them.
Choreographer Drew McOnie has fantastically energetic fun with the show’s best choral number, So You Wanna Be A Boxer. Set in a gym, the rendition is a glorious mash-up of side-kicking, jazz dance, bobbing, and weaving by a visibly sweating ensemble. Adult chorus aside, it is fair to say that the ability to hit notes increases in direct proportion with the performer’s age. But Sakyiama’s husky-throated rendition of My Name is Tallulah, which kicks off the show’s better second-half, is an unmissable vocal highlight. Impressive too is Lakha’s delicately emotional solo performance of love song, I’m Feeling Fine.
You may not hear everything but shows rarely come with more delightfully escapist charm than Bugsy Malone. Think of it as a salving child-friendly balm to winter blues.
Runs until 15 January 2023 and continues on UK tour until 19 February 2023