The Lyric has staged plenty of tough urban dramas in its time and, sure enough, the show that launches the newly refurbished theatre (after a £20m development) opens with a young victim of gang warfare being gunned to the ground. But he then rises to his feet, wipes himself down and shrugs his shoulders. “Aw man,” he complains, with the air of someone who has been mildly inconvenienced by mislaying his gloves.
It’s beautifully pitched and it sets the tone for this joyous, dazzlingly good staging of the kids-as-gangsters, pastiche musical (created by Alan Parker for his 1976 film). Handing the glitzy reopening of his theatre over to a bunch of children, artistic director Sean Holmes could have ended up, like many of the characters on stage, face down in a custard pie. But his young company vindicates his trust, turning up trumps with a show that is droll, dynamic and revels in the sheer delight of play-acting.
It’s Prohibition-era America and Fat Sam’s nightclub is under threat from rival gangster Dandy Dan. Moreover Dandy Dan’s mob is armed with superior weapons: splurge guns (which splatter victims with pink goo), where Sam’s hapless crew can only muster cream pies. It’s down to charming drifter Bugsy Malone to save the day — but not before every gangster-movie and musical cliché has been well and truly milked to the enjoyment of cast and audience alike.
Holmes’s pint-sized cast savour all this but avoid the trap of being twee. Three school-age actors rotate in the lead parts: on opening night Max Gill made a witty, world-weary Fat Sam and Daniel Purves a chipper Bugsy, complemented by Samantha Allison’s tough-talking Tallulah and Thea Lamb’s cool Blousey Brown. Both girls can really sing and they’re supported by a teenage ensemble who deliver Drew McOnie’s excellent choreography with infectious vitality.
Are there problems? Yes: the fast-talking gangster patter means lines too often get swallowed, the energy dips halfway through and Tallulah’s femme-fatale song is slightly uncomfortable. But Holmes and his designer Jon Bausor keep reminding you that this is make-believe. And there is a serious statement driving the feelgood factor. Behind the tongue-in-cheek story lurks the shadow of real hard times, both then and now. The show, and the fact that Holmes also entrusted young companies to introduce visitors to the smart new Reuben Foundation Wing, demonstrates a faith in young people that is inspiring.