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Bugsy Malone the Musical brings hilarious gangster antics to Oxford Playhouse


Sep 22, 2022

SEAN Holmes has a strained relationship with strawberry Angel Delight.

He is getting stuck into the first ever tour of Bugsy Malone – which this week sees the pink goop flowing, or more precisely rocketing out the end of splurge guns to splatter the stage of the Oxford Playhouse.

Sean first directed the show in 2015 when he was artistic director of London’s Lyric Hammersmith. It was so successful that it was revived the following year, and now it’s part-way through a huge tour, including the Beaumont Street venue until this Saturday, September 24.

Read more: Bugsy Malone reviewed… what did our theatre critic really think?

“I was dreading it,” he jokes. “It all came back to me: the smell of Angel Delight in the morning.”

Try explaining the premise of Bugsy Malone to someone who’s never heard of it, and you sound like you’ve gone mad: a bunch of rival New York gangsters in the Prohibition era, Tommy guns in hand, wisecracking, breaking into song, and saved by a washed up boxer called Bugsy… all played by children.

But this unlikely premise became one of the most infectious, enduring films of all time with a soundtrack full of singalong songs. Its writer and director, the multiple Oscar-winning British director Alan Parker, explained that the idea came out of long car journeys with his children.

Oxford Mail: Bugsy Malone comes to the Oxford Playhouse

To pass the time he would tell them stories of a gangster called Bugsy Malone. He turned those stories into the script for his first feature film and when it came to casting, his son suggested the unusual idea of putting children in the lead roles.

The 1976 film was a hit, and Parker went on to direct some of the most famous films of all time, including Evita with Madonna in the starring role, Fame and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It’s an odd film – “completely bonkers and left field” says Sean – not least because when the kids shoot their Tommy guns, instead of bullets a thick concoction called ‘splurge’ shoots out the end. In the film, Sean explains, this was done by having people off camera chuck whipped cream at the unfortunate target.

“You can’t do that on stage,” he says, so when it came to rehearsing the show in 2015 the team had to find a way they could make it work live.

“We use modified paintball guns. Obviously when you fire a pellet from a paintball gun it really hurts. But if you don’t put it in pellet form, and instead as a looser liquid, it still has the required velocity to shoot out the end. So it still looks good on stage but nobody gets hurt.”

He is aware how ridiculous it sounds to explain the intricate mechanics of something so daft. “But we did a lot of research on it,” he laughs. “It was a huge journey to find the right consistency and delivery method. It’s not just mixed with water, there’s other stuff in there too – a secret recipe.”

Parker remained deeply proud of Bugsy Malone. In 1983 he adapted it for the stage in a production starring Catherina Zeta-Jones. Fourteen years later, Sheridan Smith and Jamie Bell performed in another stage version. Yet Parker was never quite satisfied with his own adaptation, often finding it too twee. “He wasn’t a big theatre person,” says Sean. “He would be the first to admit that.”

Oxford Mail: Bugsy Malone comes to the Oxford Playhouse

After 1997, Parker refused any further professional productions of Bugsy Malone. So how did Sean end up persuading Parker to allow the first revival in almost two decades?

“How can I put this? I don’t think I’ve ever made anything that was twee,” he laughs.

Look at the director’s previous work, and it’s true: he won an Olivier Award for his brutal production of Sarah Kane’s seminal play Blasted in 2011, and he was the brains behind the avant-garde experimental Secret Theatre ensemble that put on a number of shows in unexpected locations whose titles were only revealed when the show started.

Parker agreed to meet Sean in the pub, and over a couple of drinks it became clear that what excited Sean above all else was showcasing the incredible talent of young people. It was this commitment that softened Parker, and in 2015 the show opened to a slew of glowing reviews.

Oxford Mail: Bugsy Malone comes to the Oxford Playhouse

Where Sean’s production differs from previous versions is that, while the main parts are played by young children aged between nine and 15, the ensemble are played by slightly older performers who can tackle the stunning choreography by award-winning choreographer Drew McOnie.

“It’s a bonkers idea but somehow it works,” he says. “The world of the play is actually quite tough. People are struggling to survive, to get money. Everyone’s skint. Sounds familiar at the moment, doesn’t it. Then the songs are all about the projection of something that you want to be. So none of it comes out as twee.”

In fact, watching a superbly talented group of young people singing about their futures feels quite powerful.

“There’s something in the DNA of Bugsy Malone that has lasted,” he goes on. The story is great, the songs are great, but most of all it’s a vehicle for the potential of young people. It’s a blast of hope and possibility.”

Bugsy Malone is a show that seems to predict stardom. The original film starred a very young Jodie Foster, the first West End production had a young Catherine Zeta Jones, and Sheridan Smith was just 16 when she appeared in the show in 1997.

So has Holmes spotted any bright future stars in his production? “A few of the performers from the 2015 production have gone on to great things. One is a leading drag queen, one was on The Voice, another starred in the Fantastic Beasts film.”

Oxford Mail: Bugsy Malone comes to the Oxford Playhouse

Georgia Pemberton, who played Bugsy’s girlfriend Blousey Brown in 2015, is returning seven years later as part of the older ensemble. Meanwhile the original Knuckles in 2015 was a 17 year old called Dominic Harrison. He injured his knee before the show opened and was never able to perform it, but didn’t give up on music: he’s now the phenomenally successful singer Yungblud.

That old showbiz rule about never working with children couldn’t be further from the truth, Sean reckons. It has reminded him how extraordinarily talented young people can be.

“Rather than just telling the children ‘stand there and say it like that’, I want to make everyone be able to realise their creativity,” he says. “The show gives them a huge chance to shine.”

Bugsy Malone is at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday. See oxfordplayhouse.com