Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Reviewed -29th July 2022
“a fantastic introduction to theatre for young audiences, giving a great alternative to Disney shows with talking animals”
Nearly half a century after first appearing in his own movie, ‘Bugsy Malone’ is back. Premiering in the West End in 1983 (starring a certain young Catherine Zeta Jones), the musical about New York gangsters armed with custard pies and paint guns is back on the road in 2022, presented by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in a co-production with the Theatre Royal Bath.
Known for having child actors playing grown-ups, the musical tells the story of a turf war between Fat Sam and Dandy Dan, the latter of whom keeps going after the former’s henchmen and offing them In delightfully non-violent ways. Caught up in this fight us Bugsy Malone, a local boxing promotor, who meets and falls in love with Blousey Brown as she tries to audition to sing at Fat Sam’s club. The rift between Fat Sam and Dandy Dan grows and Bugsy and Blousey find themselves caught in the middle, while dreaming of escaping the gangster scene and fleeing to Hollywood, if they can just avoid getting a custard pie in the face first.
‘Bugsy Malone’ has always been a show favoured by amateur youth groups for obvious reasons, and as such it can be seen as a little stale or twee. Thankfully this production knocks those concerns out of the park, bringing the show to life in a big, bold way. The show feels fresh while remaining timeless with effortless cool, and it blitzes through its running time with a breathless pace. Alan Parker’s script is funny and loaded with nifty gangster cliches, and Paul Williams’ music and lyrics may be nearly 50 years old but still sound great, with the songs being a mix of blues and piano-led funk/honkytonk (funkytonk?). Toes will be guaranteed to tap during “Fat Sam’s Grand Slam” and “Bad Guys”, and the numbers are further brought to life by a talented ensemble delivering Drew McOnie’s choreography with style and energy. Costumes (Jon Bausor) are well thought-out with sharp suits for the boys and fringed flapper-dresses for the girls, and everything really sells 1920s New York in a great way. The set (also by Bausor) and lighting (Philip Gladwell) combine brilliantly to create a “film noir gangster caper” feel to great effect, along with a terrifically-staged car chase scene, bouts of fisticuffs and enough paintguns and custard pies to keep children entertained for hours. As a cohesive whole, director Sean Holmes has created a sharp, funny and visually-impressive show, and is almost criminally entertaining.
Teams of three child actors share each principal role, and based on the Press Night performance, there are going to be a lot of proud parents over the coming months. Quite frankly, the kids are brilliant. Throwing themselves fully into their roles and really delivering the 1920s New York gangster vibe, each performance is spot-on and hugely enjoyable. Gabriel Payne (Bugsy) leads the show in a way no mortal child should ever be able to do, even doing a flawless American accent. Albie Snelson is also excellent as Fat Sam, his mob boss shtick being a wonderful hybrid of Marlon Brando and Joe Pesci, and bringing a huge amount of comedy and personality to his performance. Mia Lakha also stands out as aspiring singer Blousey Brown, having fun banter with Payne’s Bugsy as well as showing off an enviable voice, particulary during torch song number “Ordinary Fool”. Jasmine Sakyiama does a great job as press night’s Tallulah, both in narrating the story and in selling the eponymous “My Name Is Tallulah” number that opens the second act. Other performers on Press Night were Aidan Oti as Fizzy, Cherry Mitra as Lena & Babyface, and Desmond Cole as Dandy Dan, who all did a really entertaining job.
‘Bugsy Malone’ may be funny and tuneful, but it’s also a fantastic introduction to theatre for young audiences, giving a great alternative to Disney shows with talking animals, and offering them something a little more grown-up with enough allure to hopefully get them hooked on theatre. The show ends on “You Give A little Love”, and by time it comes, it’s not just a song, it’s an instruction. Don’t miss this show. It’s a criminally good time.
Reviewed by Rob Bartley
Photography by Johan Persson
Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 14th August then UK Tour continues
Previously reviewed by Rob: