Bugsy Malone – Milton Keynes Theatre

Reviewer: Kerrie Walters

Book: Alan Parker

Words and Music: Paul Williams

Director: Sean Holmes

Based on the iconic 1976 film of the same name, Bugsy Malone has been revived for a glitzy new UK tour ahead of a rumoured West End Stint.

A bizarre premise, a prohibition-era gang story played out by children with splurge guns and pinstripe mobster suits, results in this undeniable quirky show. The plot, charming as it is, is at best sparse. Rival bosses, Fat Sam and Dandy Dan are engaged in a turf war. Meanwhile, driver Bugsy falls in love with one of the dancers from the speakeasy, Blousey, an aspiring actress, and he is drawn further into the gangsters’ world.

But what this show lacks in plot, it makes up for in sheer unbridled escapism.

Jon Bauser’s design exquisitely underscores the action, mostly centring around the grotty New York back alleys and fire escapes, contrasting with the technicolour explosion of glitz and 1920s glamour of the indoor spaces of the gangsters’ world.

Numbers such Fat Sam’s Grand Slam appear almost as a moveable pop-up book against an otherwise monochrome set. Bauser has mastered the art of marrying the set with the movement of a show and it makes every number hit that little bit harder. Set pieces glide in from above, slide pop and spin into the action of the choreography with such pace that you would be forgiven for believing in actual magic. Hisattention to detail in the costume and hair design adds a further layer of brilliance to the piece as the well-constructed, yet massively oversized outfits practically drown the younger cast, making the costumes appear to take on a part of their own.

The principal cast is an extremely talented bunch of nine- to sixteen-year-olds, with an adult ensemble taking the lead in the showstopping dance numbers such as Bad Guys. Despite the young ages of these performers, they show a great amount of maturity and stage presence over the arc of the show. Fayth Ifil is excellent as club singer Tallulah. She has a beautiful smoky tone to her voice and delivers the score with a soulful, jazz-infused characterisation. She has taken no notes at all from Jodie Foster’s performance in the movie and has instead made the part her own: rather than the vampy delivery of the film, Ifil’s physicality is assured and steady, she is the undisputed star of the speakeasy and a seasoned gangster’s moll. She remains unflappable as the narrative is propelled and anxiety builds ahead of the final showdown. Her onstage chemistry with the entire cast, but particularly with Isham Sankoh’s Fat Sam provides a steady constant, allowing for other actors to bounce comedically within the show.

Isham Sankoh does a stellar job as Fat Sam, his vocals are strong, and his New York dialect is extremely believable. But where he really shines is within the space he creates for himself to deliver the comedy aspect of his role. His timing is sterling and his delivery is punchy, as he becomes progressively more isolated and paranoid throughout the show.

However, as is the risk with a large child-led cast, there are times when it tiptoes the line with school nativity territory. Occasionally, with some of the younger cast, diction is a little unclear and vocal pacing lags, perhaps understandably in such a word and dialect-heavy show.

The show’s biggest weakness is, however, also its greatest strength that is, the charm of its young cast and the effervescence of their onstage enthusiasm is absolutely the draw of this production.

Sean Holmes’ direction is tight, and the production values are incredible. In particular, the car chase scene that brings Act One to a close is an impressive piece of visual storytelling, with the strobe lighting adding a sense of jeopardy and panic as the ensemble creates several stop-motion images depicting the power struggle. This is an excellent physical theatre sequence chock full of inventive lifts and emotive body language.

Choreographer Drew McOnie has not shied away from the more complex elements of movement simply because he is dealing with children. Quite the opposite, he has set the bar of excellence high and this young cast has risen magnificently to the challenge. McOnie’s choreography is emotive and intense. Each number has a choreographic stand out as he has really attacked the micro themes in the movement, never missing an opportunity to add in a gag or a clever lift within a fight scene.

The aggressive and explosive uniformity of the movement on display in So you wanna be a boxer? is the visual highlight of the show. This scene is a buffet of movement, where the ensemble is paired up and performs high energy sparring routines in canon, before snaking the stage in formation with a whole host of mini training montages involving skipping ropes, acrobatics and punchbags taking place. Mohamed Bangura cuts an impressive figure as reluctant boxer Leroy in this scene; his natural effervescence and obvious comedic talent shine through as he makes his professional debut.Philip Gladwell’s lighting design in this sequence lifts McOnie’s choreography as it casts shadows upon the boxers which highlight the crispness of the movement on display and creates the illusion of a much busier stage.

This revival of Bugsy Malone is a joyous showbiz romp! Whilst it undoubtedly has its flaws in terms of narrative and at times pacing, the talent and atmosphere on display carry it through.It is high energy, sparkly wholesome family fun with a huge cast of extraordinarily talented triple-threat children. What is not to love?

Put on your trilby, grab your dancing shoes and head to Fat Sam’s Speakeasy!

Runs Until 15 October 2022 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

A Joyous Romp

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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