* * *
Church Hill Theatre
By Thom Dibdin
There’s a smoochy, laid-back feel to the Smycms’ production of Bugsy Malone, which is playing at the Church Hill Theatre until Saturday night. It’s epitomised by Greg Jones in the title role with his drawling narrator’s delivery – like a music hall Sam Spade.
The laid-back style is absolutely correct for an adult version of show which is usually played by kids and which draws much of its innate comedy – albeit comedy which is too often of the cutsie-pie type – from the juxtaposition of childhood innocence with the callous world of gangsters in prohibition-era New York.
Indeed, having won the rare privilege of staging the show using adult performers, director Laura Jordan Reed refuses to go down the obvious route of overplaying the concept. Instead, by making it relatively straight, she uses the innocence of the material to create the comedy.
It’s enough that Dandy Dan’s gang of hoodlums use foam-firing guns to do-down Fat Sam’s custard-pie wielding gang, as the Dandy moves into the lucrative illegal sarsaparilla trade – previously monopolised by Fat Sam – and takes the fight to his Grand Slam speakeasy. Who needs gags when you’ve got foam?
The lead characters cruise through the numbers. Jim Cook is a nicely corpulent Fat Sam, with Susan D’aish just strutting and vicious enough as his moll, Tallulah, without over-sensualising the role. Their creation of the Grand Slam is great, with simple but excellently conceived staging helping tell the story as it flits from one scene too the next.
On the other side, literally so in staging terms, Simon Cameron is spot on as Dandy Dan – there’s no need to ask where he got his moniker from – while Kizzy Jackson has all the spiteful arrogance for his moll Louella. There are some lovely little pieces of cleverness in the staging, such as the live cellist who represents the radio on their apartment.
Between them, Greg Jones’s Bugsy is just right, even if his accent is just a tad closer to Edinburgh than New York. The interplay between Bugsy and the feisty singer Blousey Brown does need a bit of spice, however. Karla Ritchie does well with the sweet innocence as Blousey, but never really rises above that level or convinces as to the feistiness of the character.
The company keep it sweet, too, with several standouts amongst a hardworking cast of 27 playing a total of 65 named roles.
Peter Tomassi is always great to watch, particularly when it comes to the dancing. David Van Den Bergh makes the most of a succession of brilliant little cameos. Alistair Thomas must receive a special mention for his Knuckles – not so much for the dumb-ass gangster he creates but for his excellence in the big numbers in general, with his performance in Bad Guys particularly strong.
What works best are the numbers set in the Grand Slam, with the shimmering dancers on the big steps behind, while the company hoof it out on the apron in front. Although, thanks to a strong performance from Lech Boron as Cagey Joe, So You Wanna Be A Boxer rises well above the quality of the tune itself.
What this lacks, however, is pace. At times, particularly between numbers, it is not so much laid-back as listlessly lackadaisical. It all needs to be crisper – not faster, but have just a little edge to it. Otherwise it could seem more like a collection of remotely-connected tunes, rather than a story in itself.
It is a criticism which extends through the whole company, from the leads to the orchestra and all between. What is there is nice, adequate even, where it needs to have a bit of urgency.
That said, this is a production which has fun with the material. It is excellently staged and very well choreographed, to boot. Best of all, it rises well above the cute factor to make a proper grown-up (but not “adult”!) night of musical theatre fun.
Run continues to Saturday 17 April.
Full details on Smycms website