“Drew McOnie’s musical staging is simply stunning”
Down in the back alleyways of Prohibition era New York City, where shadows lurk beneath the stark, black fire escapes, lies Fat Sam’s Speakeasy. You wouldn’t know it’s there; except that for two hours each night its doors burst open to the lucky few (hundred) who are assembled in the Alexandra Palace Theatre’s beautifully decaying auditorium. No password is needed. Just a willingness to embrace your inner child and dive headlong into a glorious world of escapism. A world of song and dance belies the average age of the performers. While we are busy recapturing our youth, they are stealing the show, grabbing grown-up talent for themselves, and making the stage their own.
Like Alan Parker’s film on which the musical is based, the mobsters and molls the bootleggers and showgirls are played by nine-to-fifteen-year-olds. An unusual idea which, on paper, shouldn’t really work. But Parker’s film did – and so does Sean Holmes’ current revival. The precocious and wild energy is harnessed by sky-high production values, slick stagecraft and some of the best choreography to be seen in a long while. Drew McOnie’s musical staging is simply stunning.
The plot might be wafer thin, but it is filled with big characters. Fat Sam’s gang are under attack from rivals led by Dandy Dan, so Sam obviously wants to fight back. Enlisting Bugsy Malone to do his dirty work is not his wisest decision. Bugsy has fallen for the singer, Blousey Brown, and all he wants to do is whisk her off to Hollywood. Much ‘splurging’ ensues, from machine guns full of custard.
Albie Snelson, as Fat Slam, sets up the story and introduces us to the characters. In fine form, Snelson breaks the fourth wall with a keen sense of comic timing and delivery. Gabriel Payne is, for the most part, comfortable with the wisecracks and cheeky charm that define Bugsy’s character. Only occasionally do we get the sense that older words are put into younger mouths. Payne’s sense of showmanship, however, is flawless. Love interest Blousey is given commanding maturity by Mia Lakha, oozing star quality when under the spotlight in her solo numbers; ‘I’m Feeling Fine’ and ‘Ordinary Fool’. The quality of the singing is beyond its years. Similarly, Jasmine Sakyiama’s sultry songstress Tallulah lights up the stage, especially when opening Act Two with her signature tune ‘My Name Is Tallulah’. With a slightly slimmer script than Fat Sam, Desmond Cole’s rival gangster, Dandy Dan, certainly pulls as many punches. And special mention must go to Aidan Oti as Fizzy – Fat Slam’s caretaker and wannabee singer. Overlooked by his boss, but definitely not by the audience who are captivated by Oti’s cheeky charming charisma. And, boy, can he move!
The marginally older ensemble brings the whole show together. Not a step was put out of place during the demanding routines and the joy that each performer brought to their role shot straight to our hearts with exhilarating accuracy. The show never dips, even during the scene changes which are choreographed into the action, seamlessly shapeshifting the locations. Designer Jon Bausor, complemented by Philip Gladwell’s lighting, are the unseen alchemists that help transform the piece into pure gold.
It isn’t music heavy. In fact, the balance of dialogue, slapstick, humour and musical numbers is pretty good. But Paul Williams’ compositions stand out. The band, led by Musical Director Connagh Tonkinson, is tucked away at floor level but fills the cavernous auditorium. Each number sounds like a hit. By the time we reach the finale the audience are quite rightly on their feet. Feet that are young and old and all ages in between. This show, that has everything, is for everyone.
“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