“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.
“Brooks practically steals the show with her soul-stirring “No Woman, No Cry”.
There’s a backline of oversized speakers, on which the cast and musicians sway to the beat while Bob Marley bounces downstage to take the microphone. Over the vamping, pulsating music, Marley introduces the cast members, inviting applause for each name check. We are definitely in gig territory here – not one of the oldest, most elaborate West End theatres. A sensation reinforced by the stripped back narrative that follows. The music is key. But like with Marley himself, it serves the purpose of getting the message across in ways that mere words cannot achieve.
David Albury bears a striking resemblance, physically and vocally. He is the alternate Bob Marley, but the role seems to have been written for him alone as he takes us on the journey of one of the most popular, yet most misunderstood, musicians in modern culture. Marley has achieved immortality, but some argue that his image is commercialised and diluted. “Get Up Stand Up!” gives us a glimpse of the real deal. The ghetto kid who believed in freedom. And fought for it. The convert to Rastafari. The kid sent away by his mother to Kingston for a better life. The ambassador of love, loss and redemption. The victim of an assassination attempt who headlined the ‘One Love’ Peace Concert in 1978, receiving the United Nations Peace Medal of the Third World. The cancer victim. But we also catch sight of the misogyny, the carelessness and self-absorption that affected those closest to him – namely his wife, Rita (Gabrielle Brooks), and long-term girlfriend, Cindy Breakspeare (Shanay Holmes).
The most revealing and poignant moments of the evening are provided by Brooks and Holmes. Hearing Marley’s words resonate from these two formidable women’s voices adds layers of compassion, tenderness, and bitterness. Brooks practically steals the show with her soul-stirring “No Woman, No Cry”.
Marley’s somewhat questionable attitude towards women is certainly thrown into the spotlight, and while writer Lee Hall tries to mitigate by highlighting Marley’s ‘marriage to the band’, we never really get a sense of what makes him tick. As mentioned, we do only get the broad outlines. The dialogue between the numbers does tend to assume we know so much already. But with such a wealth of material that’s probably a necessity, and it does spur us on to do our own homework. In the meantime, we can relish in the sheer energy of Clint Dyer’s production. It is a jukebox musical that never feels like one. Marley’s songs are the soundtrack to his life, so obviously make the perfect soundtrack to this sweeping panoramic vision of a visionary artist. Dyer races through the story, but occasionally stops the track to zoom in and focus on particular moments. Marley watches his younger self (brilliantly played by Maxwell Cole) leave the family home, while later on the young Marley stands by to witness his older self receive his cancer diagnosis.
These moments of unconventionality never detract from the ‘concert’ feel of the show. And, after all, it is the songs that tell the story. Shelley Maxwell’s choreography is stunning but, with an eye on a West End audience, occasionally mismatched to the material. But the roots are still there, just as Marley stayed true to his own roots even when Chris Blackwell of Island Records (Henry Faber) sensed a need to reach out to the predominantly white, British audience in the 1970s.
The set list is comprehensive, including lesser known, more lyrically challenging numbers along with the signature tunes we know and love. As the evening slows down to a plaintively acoustic “Redemption Song” we see the intoxicating mix of the gentle and the explosive that coexisted within Marley’s spirit. And his spirit is in full attendance throughout the night. The crowd can’t fail to follow the command of “Get Up Stand Up” during the rousing encore.