Following the success of a two-night concert version earlier this year, the Broadway musical Bonnie and Clyde finally makes its fully staged West End premiere at the Arts Theatre under the direction of Nick Winston.
The concert version, which starred original cast member Jeremy Jordan, was loved by audiences who more or less demanded this fully staged version, leading to the clever marketing tagline ‘Britain’s Most Wanted Musical.’ It’s not surprising that audiences would fall in love with this romanticised version of America’s most famous outlaws, and a large part of that will be down to Frank Wildhorn’s music, a heady mix of Country, Rock and Gospel with plenty of big ballads thrown in.
However, Ivan Menchell’s book is not without issues. This is not a reworking of the film version so it takes a little less of a glamourising view of the pair, but it does seek to explain the life choices they made, it just doesn’t do it very well. Growing up in the poverty stricken Depression era may well be a reason for turning to life of crime but it can’t be the only one.
We learn fairly early on that Clyde Barrow idolised criminals, and was determined to be a famous one himself. For Bonnie Parker, it’s not so clear. She goes from meeting Clyde and offering him a lift to holding up banks in the space of just a few scenes, we’re supposed to take this as a sign of all encompassing love, but there’s not enough in the story to back it up.
Aside from Bonnie and Clyde’s adventures we have a sub-plot involving Clyde’s brother Buck and his wife, Blanche. Interestingly, these two characters have a bit more meat to them, although the ‘it’s all for love’ reasoning for God-fearing Blanche suddenly going on the run also seems a bit too easy. George Maguire and Natalie McQueen make these roles their own, and McQueen in particular delivers a masterclass in comedy, while stunning the audience with solo numbers like ‘That’s What You Call a Dream.’
The Buck and Blanche storyline also perks up the second act, which starts to flounder in comparison to the first, perhaps because we all know where the story is heading. But of course, throughout, the focus is on the titular characters, and it’s a pair of outstanding performances from Jordan Luke Gage and Frances Mayli McCann.
Jordan Luke Gage immediately captures the swivelled-eyed manic danger of Clyde Barrow, setting the audience up perfectly for moments of extreme violence and also vulnerability. Frances Mayli McCann makes Bonnie Parker a strong female lead, easily able to handle Clyde’s outbursts, and with ambitions of her own. Fantastic vocals from both make for some riveting solos and duets.
In reality, the Arts Theatre is just too small for this Bonnie and Clyde, yet Nick Winston succeeds in making it feel bigger and all the more dramatic. The set, limited by space, does a remarkable job of making each scene feel distinct.
Despite issues with the book, this is a musical that audiences will remember for a fantastic score and sensational performances. Nick Winston has done wonders with what was available, in terms of both book and space, and instead of being the damp squib it could so easily have been, audiences are likely to be making further demands – get Bonnie and Clyde to a much bigger stage faster than Clyde Barrow can drive a getaway car.