Bugsy Malone – Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

Asanda Jezile in Manuel Harlan

Asanda Jezile in Bugsy Malone at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Bugsy Malone continues at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London until 1 August.

Star rating: 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Alan Parker’s 1976 movie musical Bugsy Malone remains a favourite from my childhood, so I have to admit to some apprehension when I heard it was being brought to life on the London stage. The original concept required kids, dressed and acting as grown-ups, to mime along to vocals provided by adults and yet, as odd as this sounds, it worked tremendously well on screen. But would it work the same sung by youngsters?

Luckily, this new production at the revamped Lyric has at the ready a pool of incredible young talent, as a rundown of their theatre schools attests: Sylvia Young, Redroofs, EDSA, Arts Ed, Italia Conti, and more. It’s London’s first professional stage outing for the show in more than ten years – Parker has carefully protected his much-loved musical from over-exploitation – and it’s certainly been worth the wait, because the end result is spectacular.

The Lyric’s artistic director Sean Holmes has crafted a gem of a show with all the trappings and talent of a huge West End production – impressively noir-ish sets (Jon Bausor), evocative lighting (James Farncombe), an outstandingly sassy band (MD’d by Phil Bateman), elaborate dance routines (Drew McOnie) and delightful costumes (Katie Salmon) – but, rather surreally, filled with these little (and some not so little) kids. It’s at its funniest when it plays up this ridiculousness: kiddy gangsters ordering “the usual on the rocks” and wearing pinstripe suits just a little on the big size.

The performances are, with rare exceptions, top notch, too. There are three casts of seven principals, and on the night I visited, every one of them gave it their all, and did composer Paul Williams and his wonderfully memorable tunes proud.

Sasha Gray is perfect as Bugsy, with the right mix of charm, good looks and vocal talent. By the time we got to the last song of the night, ‘Give a Little Love’, he’d grown in confidence and really commanded the stage.

Asanda Jezile, in the role played on screen by Jodie Foster, is outstanding as the sultry Tallulah, demonstrating a maturity beyond her years. A Britain’s Got Talent finalist in 2013, she is surely set for a busy career on the stage. Also giving a notable performance is Zoe Brough as Bugsy’s wise-cracking sweetheart Blousey Brown. Zoe, an Arts Ed student, recently earned a Best Supporting Olivier nomination for the rather disturbing play The Nether, and again, her maturity and confidence set her apart as one to watch.

It would be churlish to leave out mention of the remaining leads: Jenson Steele as the blustering Fat Sam, Marley Lockhart as wannabe dancer Fizzy, Emily Beacock as Baby Face and the hilariously tiny Oliver Emery as rival gang leader Dandy Dan, complete with giant camel-skin coat and pencil-line moustache. All very much deserved their curtain cheers.

The ensemble – ranging up to 22 years old – add fizz and sparkle, much of it thanks to Drew McOnie’s high-end choreography. The Lyric almost literally explodes with life, as bodies fly to and fro to the energetic music. The staging of ‘So You Wanna Be a Boxer’ is particularly brilliant, and Hammed Animashaun makes for a hilarious Leroy Smith, the reluctant boxer. The discipline on show is testament to the professionalism and seriousness of the youthful cast: this is no school play – it’s the real thing.

Yes, there are rough edges: not all performances are slick or ‘professional’, and the timing could do with being tightened up. But come on, it’s kids having fun, and it somehow all adds to the charm. One major disappointment for me, though: the final Grand Slam at Fat Sams, which I was expecting to be a riotous ensemble with custard pies and splurge-guns aplenty, is a rather damp squib and over in a matter of seconds. Probably something to do with health and safety, no doubt…

That aside, Bugsy Malone is a joyous celebration of childhood – let loose with the ultimate dressing-up box, these kids are having a blast, and the fun is infectious – so, don’t miss the chance to catch this sassy show before it’s gone. With decent discounts for under-16s, and indeed with top price premium tickets at just £40, it’s exceptional value for money for a show that rivals anything you’ll see in Shaftesbury Avenue.

Craig Glenday

www.lyric.co.uk

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