Sean Holmes’ 2015 Lyric Hammersmith stage adaptation of Alan Parker’s 1976 film, has come around again as Christmas family fare at Ally Pally. The juvenile troupers give it their all and the stagecraft offers some sure-fire crowd-pleasing touches — like a life-sized car on stage — but rather than feeling filled with the spirit of the season, the experience has convinced me that Bugsy Malone is less of a festive classic and more of an awkward cultural relic that needs to be retired from the canon.
We are now a century past the Roaring Twenties (an era glamourised and sanitised in so many Hollywood films throughout the 20th century and successful enough to inspire Alan Parker’s award-winning 1976 feature film Bugsy Malone). Executed well and consistently, the novelty and incongruity of a spoof Hollywood gangster film – with all its deliberate cliches enacted by children – was seen as both innovative and a great laugh 45 years ago. Indeed, spoofs of past genres can endure and entertain multiple generations at the same time – think Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Anthony Horowitz’s The Falcon’s Malteaser.
However, this stage musical is a revival of a revival that spoofed a genre of simplistic and demeaning tropes (without mocking any of them) and then shrugs it all off as a giggle. What should be layered is just fuzzy. The child actors are creepily precocious in a way that a lot of 1970s art is disquieting to the modern eye. I suspect (and indeed hope) that director Sean Holmes and his creative team were somewhat vexed by the problem of casting children as murderers and molls. As such what should be funny, edgy and knowing come across as fudged. The cast are mostly adolescents (rather than young kids) supported by a surrounding young adult ensemble that make this show feel like a very high production value secondary school play with some ringers brought in. And the goofy pie-in-the-face Noir is lost with effects that make what in Parker’s film are ping pong balls and custard guns just seem like County Lines violence – which doesn’t quite sing out ‘Merry Christmas’.
The script never challenges, or even ridicules, that the female characters are either ‘marrying kind’ virtuous young ladies or vamping gangsters’ molls. There isn’t a single sentence of dialogue that would pass the Bechdel Test – and it’s somehow doubly painful to watch the young female cast members all the more subjugated because the writing (or at least this production’s version of it) has no comic self-awareness about the stereotypes it rehashes under the cloak of ‘fun’. However, there is something disturbing about the source material. I went back and watched a clip of Jodie Foster (aged 13 just after wrapping Taxi Driver) performing, ‘My name is Tallulah’ in the original Parker feature – and found it more disquieting than her role in the Scorsese film in which that character’s sexual exploitation is central to the story-telling. Meanwhile, the boys ape the worst sort of toxic masculinity without so much as a wink. They order the girls to fix them drinks or their make-up – hilarious! Listening to male children mimic misogynist ancestors, unfiltered, for laughs with the protection of slapstick, is just depressing. As a piece of academic study about what was considered appropriate for children, along with, say, Louis Malle’s 1978 Pretty Baby, both the film and stage show of Bugsy Malone, are interesting to contemplate. But as presented here by Sean Holmes as family entertainment in 2022/2023 feels just wrong – which is a great pity for its talented cast singing and dancing their hearts out.
Not every Panto or Crimbo show needs to be a ‘woke’ re-imagining or an act of cultural reconciliation, but barking orders at female characters or giving them no agency and no purpose other than decoration is upsetting. But then so too is casting three emerging acting talents as ‘Fat Sam’ about which they all describe their excitement at the opportunity. Young actor Albie Snelson is a star in the making – with great presence and comic timing – and I hope he is offered roles that respect his considerable talents. Likewise, Mia Lakha who plays Blousey deserves the chance to let her lovely voice and presence inhabit a role that shows dignity to her sex.
Sorry to be a killjoy, but despite its formidable song and dance numbers, this production of Bugsy Malone is both creepy and approximate. Whilst the choreography (by Drew McOnie) is impressive and Hugh O’Shea has coached some impressive dialects, the script needs a real re-think and a renewed sense of purpose for 2023. Running until 15 January, the production would be significantly improved by adding lashings more confectionary and whipped cream that formed the goofy, slapstick foundations of the film (despite its intrinsic creepiness). If you still want to take a trip down memory lane to unfiltered 1970s views of ‘fun with kids’, make sure you book a seat back further from Row L, because the sight-lines from the flat floor obscure much of the dancing which is one of the indisputably successful aspects of this production.
The choreography, lighting, set and costumes are jolly and visually appealing – but such talent would be better served by a more considered vehicle.
Review by Mary Beer
Welcome to New York 1929! A city full of mobsters, showgirls and dreamers. Rival gangster bosses Fat Sam and Dandy Dan are at loggerheads. The custard pies are flying and the new-fangled “splurge” gun is causing mayhem.
Enter Bugsy Malone, a penniless one-time boxer and all-round nice guy. All he wants is to spend time with his new love, Blousey, but can he resist seductive songstress Tallulah and stay out of trouble long enough to help Fat Sam defend his business…?
Play by Alan Parker, Words & Music by Paul Williams
Directed by Olivier Award-winning Sean Holmes and choreographed by Olivier Award-winning Drew McOnie, Bugsy Malone The Musical is designed by multi award-winning international stage designer Jon Bausor, with Phil Bateman (Musical Supervisor, Arranger and Orchestrator), Phil Gladwell (Lighting Designer) and Ben Harrison (Sound Designer).
Bugsy Malone The Musical
Alexandra Palace, London
3 Dec 2022 – 15 Jan 2023