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Bugsy Malone

Ensemble shot of the cast of Bugsy Malone, Hammersmith Lyric, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan Ensemble shot of the cast of Bugsy Malone, Hammersmith Lyric, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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The Lyric Hammersmith has reopened after a £20m redevelopment programme with the addition of the brand new Reuben Foundation Wing, which houses an impressive series of new studios to nurture the creativity of young people.

The theatre also now puts a youthful cast centre stage for its grand reopening mainstage show, a joyous new stage version of the 1976 British-American film musical classic Bugsy Malone that proves that what happens behind the scenes at this venue can also explode with sheer energy and exhilaration on its stage as well.

It’s an utterly canny and appropriate choice. Playing like a pint-sized Guys and Dolls, Bugsy Malone is a knowing yet constantly affectionate portrait of Chicago gangster turf warfare and showbusiness aspiration, but played by a mostly teenage cast so that the threat of real violence and/or overt sexuality is removed (the ‘splurge’ guns famously dispense custard pie foam, not bullets, and the romances here are also strictly platonic).

The cross references to the great Broadway musical Guys and Dolls are numerous, including Hot Box-style showgirls and a descent into an underground sewer. And choreographer Drew McOnie and designer Jon Bausor seize upon those links with fervour. Bausor keeps the stage uncluttered, but brings in impressive setpieces as required, including a large bar and (at one point) a giant pedal car. It is McOnie who instead populates the stage with the kinetic movement of human bodies, putting extreme athletic and choreographic demands on the young cast – which they achieve with a seamless clarity and sublime co-ordination.

So You Wanna Be a Boxer is a particular triumph of narrative dance storytelling, as Leroy Smith (Hammed Animashaun) rescues Bugsy, a boxing promoter, from a mugging, and is coached into becoming a boxer.The show packs a powerful punch here in every sense. But it also lands softer blows throughout, particularly thanks to the wide-eyed urchin charm of Daniel Purves’ Bugsy. Purves is a pocket-sized dynamo, fresh, funny and fabulous. So is Max Gill as Fat Sam at the performance reviewed: he exudes a confidence that means his character not only owns this turf but also owns this stage.

In the film, the vocals for the songs were famously dubbed by adult voices but here the young cast not only has to dance and act up a storm but also sing. The sound may occasionally be off-balance as they compete with Phil Bateman’s brassy orchestra, but by the time the company performs a megamix curtain finale, the audience was drowning them out with ecstatic cheers anyway.

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Triumphant homecoming for the Lyric is a bold statement for the young people at the centre of its creative vision