Director of Bugsy Malone The Musical
Photo credits: Johann Persson and Tristram Kenton
As smash hit musical Bugsy Malone sets out on its first ever tour opening at the Theatre Royal Bath from 2nd to 23rd July, director Sean Holmes talks about the talent of young people, adapting the original film, and his secret recipe for ‘splurge’...
Sean Holmes has a strained relationship with strawberry Angel Delight. He is coming to the end of rehearsals for the first ever tour of Bugsy Malone and soon the pink goop will be flowing, or more precisely rocketing out the end of splurge guns to splatter the stages of theatres up and down the country.
Holmes 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 setting out on a huge tour covering every corner of the country.
“I’m starting to dread it now,” he jokes. “It’s all coming 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.
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 Holmes - 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, Holmes 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.”
"I am really looking forward to feeling the chemistry between audience and performer once again. Touring is great as well, as I love getting to know new cities on my days off."
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 Holmes. “He would be the first to admit that.”
After 1997, Parker refused any further professional productions of Bugsy Malone. So how did Holmes 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,” Holmes 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 Holmes in the pub, and over a couple of drinks it became clear that what excited Holmes 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.
Where Holmes’s production differs from previous versions is that, while the main parts are played by young children aged between 9 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,” says Holmes. “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. 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.”
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, Holmes reckons. He and associate director Franny-Anne Rafferty have been rehearsing with the three rotating casts for several weeks now and it’s reminded him how extraordinarily talented young people can be.
“As an audience, even if it's subconscious, we know if a kid has been drilled within an inch of their life to deliver a performance that is set in stone. But you also know when you’re seeing a 12-year-old who feels like they own the show, who makes you go ‘oh my god’. Whenever I do a show, what I want is collective ownership, the feeling of ‘let's make this together’. Rather than just telling the children ‘stand there and say it like that’, I want to make everyone be able to realise their creativity. The show gives them a huge chance to shine.”
Alan Parker died in 2020. “He was so supportive of us doing this. It meant so much to the kids when he came into the rehearsal room or came to see a show. They felt on top of the world. And it’s just tremendously sad that he won’t be able to see it again.”
For now, the challenge for Holmes isn’t rehearsing three casts simultaneously, and negotiating the complexities of a huge national tour. It’s working out how to mop the stage between scenes after everything gets covered in splurge.
“Just before I left the Lyric Hammersmith in 2018 I would look up at the back of the proscenium arch stage and occasionally see a bit of crusty pink stuff still stuck to the wall.” Theatres across the country be warned.
two tickets to see Bugsy Malone The Musical . For a chance to win, simply click on the link below and follow the steps...
Bugsy Malone The Musical opens its first UK tour at the Theatre Royal Bath appearing from Saturday 2nd to Saturday 23rd July. Tickets are on sale at the Theatre Royal Bath Box Office on 01225 448844 and online at www.theatreroyal.org.uk