Pint-sized performers are raising splurge guns and smiles in madcap musical comedy Bugsy Malone at Milton Keynes Theatre this week.
Based on Alan Parker’s 1976 film, this light-hearted family show is a fun fusion of the timeless Hollywood musical and the clichéd Prohibition-era gangster movie. The twist, of course, is that children are cast in adult roles: the kids behave like gangsters (or perhaps the gangsters behave like kids). Their weapons of choice are custard pies and whipped cream. Splat! Gangland warfare sweetened to taste like playground games.
The lead characters are portrayed by junior performers – three rotating teams of children – who are aged between 9 and 15. They are framed and supported by a versatile young-adult ensemble.
Rival mobsters Fat Sam and Dandy Dan are at odds, again. Their turf war is getting stickier now Dandy Dan’s hapless hoodlums are wielding “splurge” guns, while Fat Sam’s artillery still consists solely of custard pies. Worried, Fat Sam calls on popular former boxer Bugsy Malone to put pedal to the metal as a driver and help whip the cowardly pie-chuckers into shape. Concurrently, Bugsy is busy falling for singer and aspiring starlet Blousey Brown, while sidestepping unwanted attention from Fat Sam’s girlfriend, whose name is Tallulah.
Ready to swing by Fat Sam’s speakeasy to see everyone get their just des[s]erts? You will meet a go-getting group of larger-than-life personalities (in smaller-than-adult frames) and an energised ensemble of grown-ups (whose dancing packs a punch). You will feel the good cheer. And you will enjoy silliness, sass, sparkle and oh-so-catchy songs.
Bugsy Malone is a strange look at criminal behaviour and taking responsibility for the choices you make, as seen through the eyes of a child. There is no real threat of danger, nor any character development to engage with. It basically relies on the audience embracing the sheer silliness that is indulged in by having children impersonate adults.
This production, which is directed by Sean Holmes, was originally staged in 2015 at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre and is now touring for the first time. Definitely not a show that can be accused of taking itself too seriously, it repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and delivers plenty of thrills and spills. The lasting impression is one of charming chaos.
Diverse junior performers shine under the spotlights. These kids have the stage presence and infectious enthusiasm to show youngsters in the audience that they too can be anything that they want to be. It therefore seems a shame that more noise is not made about which cast members are portraying the characters at each performance. The programme lists all three junior performers who share each role, alongside headshots, but a performance-specific cast list proudly displayed at the venue would be a valuable addition. Post-show investigation confirms that the ‘Roxy’ team opened the Milton Keynes run.
Giddy energy permeates every scene. The script is packed full of dialogue, which is mostly delivered with pluck and pizzazz. At times, though, the pacey gangster patter is rushed, breathless and inaudible. There are also moments when the volume of the music overpowers the singing.
Nonetheless, all the songs are given a lot of love and performed with charisma. The youngest cast members are at their best when they have the stage to themselves for their character’s star turn. The most enthralling numbers are those that feature the adult ensemble performers throwing themselves into Drew McOnie’s excellent choreography.
The movement is appealing, amusing and athletic. Swivelling showgirls wearing flapper-style sequins are effortlessly flung around by dapper gents during ‘Fat Sam’s Grand Slam’. It’s a dazzling delight. Suited-and-booted mobsters show off slapstick talent in ‘Bad Guys’. Their splayed hands, shaking heads and shocked facial expressions top off criminally impressive tricks. Barefoot contemporary sets the tone perfectly for ‘Tomorrow’. The dream-like dancing is all wistful weaving and sweeping momentum. Warm-up isolations and bursts of fighting in canon are followed by tumbling, skipping and punchy turns in ‘So You Wanna Be A Boxer’ (a knockout routine).
The set, which makes a feature of a steel staircase, provides a moody monochrome backdrop. Locations change as a result of atmospheric lighting paired with scenery and props that are lowered down from the rafters or slid in by impeccably costumed cast members. So, after the gloom of a downtown alley or backstreet office, the polished art-deco aesthetic of the sparkling speakeasy is achieved with cabaret tables and chairs that float down from the ceiling and the sudden appearance of a back-lit bar stocked with colourful bottles of pop.
Yes, it’s bonkers. But Bugsy Malone owns being a wholesome, wondrous, wacky show. And maybe we should all be a bit silly more often. For now, why not surrender to the make-believe madness of this musical?
*Production photography by Johan Persson.
Bugsy Malone continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 15 October 2022. The UK tour continues until 19 February 2023.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.