Seven years after reopening the Lyric Hammersmith and some 30-plus years since Alan Parker’s film was released, Bugsy Malone begins its UK tour in Bath before a rumoured West End residency. If the electric buzz on press night is any indication, Sean Holmes’ finely realised production, aided by Drew McOnie’s sparkling choreography, will prove a summer hit.
Parker was famously against giving professional stage rights to his iconic 1976 film. Yet, as many have experienced from schooldays on and offstage, there is something inherently charming about a show that turns gangland warfare into playground games and bloody massacres into splurge gun gunk. If Holmes’ production doesn’t shy away from the darkness, always lingering an extra second on bodies splayed on the floor, it’s not long before the performers are back up on their feet, dusting themselves off, throwing themselves into the next set-piece.
The plot could be dashed off on the back of a postcard. Rival hoodlums Fat Sam and Dandy Dan are engaged in turf wars, while driver Bugsy falls in love with aspiring actress Blousey. When Bugsy is offered cash from Sam that will help him take her to Hollywood, the stage is set for these two plot strands to inter-merge. Even at a shade under two hours, the plot is stretched but it comes alive in Paul Williams’ knockout score and McOnie’s propulsive dance numbers that turn “So You Wanna Be A Boxer” and “Down And Out” in particular into showstoppers.
Holmes’ best idea is to multi-cast the leading roles with young performers and add an adult ensemble to provide ballast to the group numbers. It really works and gives the production both ragged charm and polished sheen. Generally, the singing from the young cast is stronger than the acting but Mia Lakha is a serious one to watch as Blousey, utilising her soulful voice to turn “I’m Feeling Fine” and “Ordinary Fool” into torch songs. Gabriel Payne is all huge charisma in a little frame as Bugsy while Jasmine Sakyiama’s Tallulah is wisely less vamping than Jodie Foster’s filmed take, but still shows us a showgirl actively yearning for a different life. Albie Snelson is vaudevillian fun as Fat Sam, seeing his empire falling apart one hit at a time, while Aidan Oti dances with insouciant grace as the janitor hoping for his big break.
Jon Bausor’s stripped-back set shows us the theatres’ walls, suggesting both backstage dramas and the kind of place where Al Capone took out his rivals in his pomp while providing plenty of space for tumbles, acrobats, and vaulting in the athletic choreography.
Ultimately, Bugsy Malone is a good, not a great, musical, but there is something intangible about it that means it’s almost failproof. Yet given a terrific production, as it is here, it compels an audience to rise to its feet, with or without its deliberate mega mix finale that gives its young performers one last chance to shine and leaves its audience beaming at the sheer talent that will stock the West End for generations to come.