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Reviewed: Bugsy Malone at Curve

The touring production could've been anything that it wanted to be...

Fat Sam's gang of hoodlums perform iconic number "Bad Guys".
Fat Sam's gang of hoodlums perform iconic number "Bad Guys". Photo by Johan Persson.

There's a real risk of my sounding like a broken record in this review. But at least you can hear a broken record...

Bugsy Malone is pure, uncut nostalgia for me. I watched the film a lot as a child, and I feel like it's always been part of my life. I was very excited to receive the invite to review this production that began life in 2015 at Birmingham Rep Theatre.

Based on Sir Alan Parker's 1974 film and written by Parker himself with music with lyrics by Paul Williams, director Sean Holmes has lovingly recreated much of the movie's charm for the stage.

Set in prohibition era New York and centred around Fat Sam's Grand Slam speakeasy, it follows Bugsy Malone - boxing manager and occasional driver for mobster, Fat Sam. As a turf war develops against rival gangster Dandy Dan, Bugsy tries to do right by Fat Sam and new sweetheart, Blousey Brown.

Bugsy's main USP has always been the child-led cast and that tradition has been continued here with all lead characters played by young performers, while the ensemble and dancers are adults.

Gabriel Payne as Bugsy, with Jasmine Sakyiama as Tallulah.
Gabriel Payne as Bugsy, with Jasmine Sakyiama as Tallulah (though Amar Blackman and Taziva-Faye Katsande played the roles in the production Niche saw). Photo by Johan Persson.

It's a talented cast, each committing to the classic New York-gangster accent, which did occasionally come at the expense of diction. This (combined with other sound issues - more on this later) did occasionally make it difficult to hear the dialogue, and occasional rushing meant the jokes didn't always land with the audience. It's a shame, because the cast were clearly performing their socks off.

The other iconic image of Bugsy Malone is the custard-pie-firing splurge guns. In this child-friendly version of the mob world, gangsters are assassinated by being hit with custard pies (though we don't see the first actual pie until deep into the first half). Yet this feature is oddly absent from this production. Instead, the actors splurge guns fire minimal "custard", effectively making it look like the actors are firing actual guns instead.

I've seen amateur productions solve this issue with silly-string and other alternatives before now, so to see the assassinated characters here have nothing more than a slightly moist suit to deal with felt anti-climactic.

The jeopardy is further undermined by a curious directorial choice. Each "pied" character has their picture taken by a police photographer and then gets to their feet and exclaims "awww, man..." to the audience. I assume this was done to assure younger members of the audience that they're ok, but it really undermines any sense of dramatic tension for all future mob hits.

In the original movie, if a character got hit with a pie or shot with a splurge gun there was no doubt about it - they were dead. They didn't reappear (obviously, cast limitations may play a factor here), and the allegory was clear.

My only other minor gripe with the production was that at times, the iconic songs have received new arrangements that don't feel as dynamic as the original. 'Bad Guys' - perhaps the best-loved song of the movie - is given a very gradual lead-in here that took away some of the wow-factor for me. By the second verse, it was up to tempo and firing on all cylinders, but it seemed a strange way to start a song that most of the audience knows by heart.

The ensemble perform "So You Wanna Be A Boxer".
The ensemble perform "So You Wanna Be A Boxer". Photo by Johan Persson.

That's not to say there weren't plenty of good moments! Drew McOnie's choreography dazzles throughout, with the ensemble's performance of 'So You Wanna Be A Boxer' a particular highlight.

Amar Blackman is a charismatic Bugsy and gets plenty of moments to shine. Though despite being the title character, it's really Fat Sam's story. Charlie Burns does well in the role, bossing older actors around the stage, exhibiting a growing anxiety as his gang are picked off, leaving him vulnerable.

Avive Savannah Williams as Blousey and Taziva-Faye Katsande as Tallulah each exhibit their vocal credentials, delivering beautiful performances of their respective songs, with Katsande's rendition of 'My Name Is Tallulah' arguably on par with the original. Williams also turns in a delicate performance as Blousey, with flashes of the steely strength-of-will that lies beneath the surface.

Raayhaan Kufour-Gray - presumably the youngest member of the cast at 11 years old - did a lovely job as antagonist Dandy Dan. His diminutive stature being used for comic effect as his shadow is projected onto a sheet before his first appearance, creating the illusion of a much taller adult.

Mohamed Bangura is great as Leroy - the reluctant boxing prodigy. It's a bit of a shame that the character doesn't enter until the second act because he's such a stand out, and would offer Bugsy someone else to talk to for exposition purposes. This is one area where straying from the order of the original film might have benefitted it.

Bugsy Malone - Mia Lakha (Blousey), Gabriel Payne (Bugsy) and ensemble. Photo by Johan Persson.
Bugsy Malone - Mia Lakha (Blousey), Gabriel Payne (Bugsy) and ensemble. Photo by Johan Persson.

But ultimately, the production is let down by sound mixing. The singers were drowned out by the musicians. At one point, it sounded like the singers were in another room; at another time, I couldn't tell if their mics were on, or if I could only hear them because I was relatively close to the stage.

To the touring production, I apologise, as you probably deserve another star on the below rating, but the sound issues were so detrimental, that it can't be ignored.


Bugsy Malone: The Musical is at Curve from Tuesday to Sunday, October 4-9, 2022.


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