Words by Melissa Blease Theatre Royal Bath until 23 July
Cynics can try as hard as they like to find something negative to say about it (and they’ll try very hard, ‘cos that’s what cynics like to do)… but there’s absolutely nothing not to like about this stunning revival of the universally acclaimed Lyric Hammersmith Theatre production of Bugsy Malone.
Adapted from director Alan Parker’s 1976 feature film of the same name, this Stateside gangster-drama pastiche tells the story of how down-on-his-luck former boxer/boxing scout and all-round nice guy Bugsy agrees to back his mobster mate Fat Sam in his battle with rival gang boss Dandy Dan, deflecting the attention of Sam’s seductive moll Tallulah as he does his damnedest to win the heart of headstrong fledgling singer Blousey Brown along the way
Set in New York City in 1929, the story is loosely based on the real-life exploits of infamous gangsters such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran during the Prohibition era. Parker – who, for his directorial debut, simply wanted to “make a film that his children would enjoy” – adapted a collection of erstwhile very grown-up tales for the children’s market, replacing machine guns with splurge guns that fire gobs of cream instead of bullets… and featuring an ensemble cast with an average age of 12 years old. On paper, it was a preposterous, unpromising pitch. However…
Having premiered at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival (where it competed for the Palme d’Or), Parker’s Bugsy went on to garner multiple prestigious award nominations and gongs. Heck, the movie (which is also widely credited for launching the careers of Jodie Foster and Scott Baio, both aged just 14 and 16 respectively at the time of the film’s release) was even nominated for inclusion in the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Gangster Films; not bad for a mob-based myth that doesn’t have an F-bomb, a drugs reference nor any hint of the glorification of toxic masculinity in sight.
Very much centre-stage, however, is an epigrammatic pastiche of all the elements of all the films on that top ten list, from The Godfather to Goodfellas and back again. Late night bar, where much of the plotting, drama and action happens? Fat Sam’s Speakeasy. Girls, girls, girls? Lots of them, in full-on, super-sassy mode (and all the showgirl regalia to support that mode). Fast-talking wise guys in sharp stripes? Tick! And plenty of slow-to-react, distinctly unwise guys in less-than-sharp duds, too. Waiters and wannabes, must-haves and haven’t gots, quipsters and stooges: it’s all going on, all the time, courtesy of an impeccable ensemble cast, most of whom I’m guessing are yet to celebrate their 18th birthdays, and many of whom are eagerly anticipating their 12th.
The cast list may rotate but professionalism and maturity are the overriding anchors here, regardless of the cast’s vintage (or lack of). At the performance I saw, Gabriel Payne was a super-smooth, super-sharp Bugsy, the perfect foil for Albie Snelson’s wittily gauche, graceless Fat Sam and Desmond Cole’s slightly more sinister Dandy Dan. As Speakeasy siren Tallulah, Jasmine Sakyiama exuded a droll but totally bewitching allure, while Aidan Oti’s Fizzy offered a masterclass in How To Own A Stage (even if you’re very tiny). As for Mia Lakha as Bugsy’s love interest Blousey: if you ever wondered what a young Billie Holiday may have sounded like, you’ve come to the right place.
Played out against an artfully low-key backdrop, all the tarnished glitz, seedy glamour and in-your-face, bellicose bling you could possibly want from a ‘golden age’ gangster yarn super-boosts the subtle impact of Jon Bausor’s set and costume design while allowing all the necessary space and spotlight for Drew McOnie’s immaculate choreography. There’s literally not a single step out of place, nor a beat dropped, nor a less-than-perfect lift to be spotted throughout a collection of all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas that flit from nightclub to car chase to boxing gym to the mean streets of New York and back to the nightclub, with Paul William’s Oscar-winning Big Hits (Fat Sam’s Grand Slam, My Name is Tallulah, Ordinary Fool, Down and Out – you think you don’t know them, but you do) and a proper live orchestra down in the pit reminding us just how very, very good musical theatre at its very, very best, can be.
Slick, polished and confident, audaciously whimsical, luxuriously exuberant, thoroughly modern and laden with hugely impressive production values throughout, the UK’s first ever touring production of Bugsy Malone has every right to be proud of itself. The cynics can go at it all they like; they’ll only end up with custard pie on their chins.