Bonnie & Clyde

Bonnie & ClydeGarrick Theatre 4th March 2023©The Other Richard
Bonnie & Clyde
Photo credit: The Other Richard

“Nothing rhymes with ‘Clyde & Bonnie’.” Everyone’s favourite criminal gang returns, as Bonnie & Clyde moves home to the Garrick Theatre for a limited engagement, following on from its run at the Arts Theatre last year. Many of that original cast have returned for some more hell-raising – including stars Frances Mayli McCann & Jordan Luke Gage – and a West End cast recording is on its way in the near future. Composer Frank Wildhorn, lyricist Don Black, and writer Ivan Menchell have been working on the material in the interim, applying some tweaks and additions to try and improve upon what was already a hugely successful production; this is a refreshing move, showing that the team isn’t complacent about its transfer.

Both growing up in “the Devil’s Back Porch” (a.k.a. West Dallas), Bonnie and Clyde have big ambitions: she aspires to be an actress, and he is obsessed with outlaws. They dream of breaking free, but instead she is stuck waitressing and all that awaits Clyde is a life of petty crime & multiple prison sentences – until they meet each other, that is. Clyde and his brother Buck have managed to escape from jail; while Buck seeks out his God-fearing wife Blanche, Clyde helps Bonnie with her broken down car – and it seems to be love at first sight. With Buck convinced to return to jail to serve out the rest of his sentence, Clyde goes on a spree that eventually also finds him back in prison – but with a significantly longer term than before. By this point, Bonnie is already devoted to him, and so smuggles in a gun to help Clyde escape again – then all that’s left for them is to go on the run…

First of all, I have to note how seamlessly the show has switched to this larger venue. Good use is made of the entire stage; curtains & screens divide it into different sections, so the action can switch between locations without relenting on its pace (we’re worlds away from the National Theatre’s sluggish Phaedra, here) – and Philip Witcomb’s set design works in concert with Nina Dunn’s video design, combining projections with physical props to create the world of 1930s America. The larger stage also allows the choreography to breathe, and somehow makes the intimate moments more intense without losing them in all that extra space. Having only seen the show at the Arts Theatre a couple of times, I can’t pinpoint many of the changes (other than the presumably practical move to not have child actors playing young Bonnie & Clyde during Picture Show at the very beginning), but it definitely feels like it has stepped up a notch since last year.

While you can understand Bonnie quickly getting on board with Clyde committing minor crimes to fund their escape, when he kills a deputy in a botched robbery, she panics and tries to leave – but is very quickly brought round. Obviously there isn’t time to dwell on too much in a naturalistic way, but being persuaded within about two minutes of Too Late to Turn Back Now is maybe a little stretch of the imagination. I would also have liked a few of the blackout scene transitions to have been switched for something a little more creative; it does get repetitive having a song finish, then everything going dark while the band plays a few strains of that song, and the cast resets ready for the next scene. The more this happens, the more likely an audience is to disconnect – whereas having something more visual will keep viewers focused and engaged.

Although there is an enduring fascination with true crime that means a story like this will appeal at any time in history, it is made more relevant now by the fact that our current economic state and national mood are reminiscent of the state of America during the Great Depression. The Barrow Gang may not have been Robin Hood & his Merry Men (robbing the rich to give to the poor), but you can see the appeal of finding whatever way you can to survive in a financial crisis – and their disregard for law enforcement also chimes with plenty nowadays who are disillusioned with the current police service. It is a shame that the socio-political aspect of the story isn’t explored a bit more, though maybe they’d be open to working on that in the future.

The ensemble do excellent work, multi-roling as members of the congregation, bank & grocery store customers, unemployed workers, and many others. Dom Hartley-Harris gives a rousing rendition of both God’s Arms Are Always Open and Made in America, which are definite highlights (and two of the ear-worms) of this production. Jodie Steele & George Maguire have forged an authentic bond as Blanche & Buck Barrow; they provide much of the light relief in this dark-edged show, as both have exceptional comic timing (and Blanche has some of the best one-liners), but they do also contrast this with high emotion at key moments.

There is great chemistry between leads Frances Mayli McCann & Jordan Luke Gage, and their rapport builds on the foundations of last year’s run; it’s a pleasure to hear them sing, both together (such as What Was Good Enough For You) and apart (see Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad and Raise a Little Hell). McCann is equally believable as the naïve young Bonnie as she is the crime queen who still holds an ambition for fame – and Gage brings a real physicality to Clyde, even down to the whites of his eyes (to the extent that you feel a sense of threat if you’re sat in the front few rows of the stalls).

Despite it ticking the “based on” box that modern musicals seem to adhere to at the moment (whether it’s real events, a film, or even a show about baking), it does manage to stand out from the crowd by virtue of it’s dark tone and a more rock-tinged score. It’s fun, but still gritty, and there are plenty of standout songs – what’s not to love?

Bonnie & ClydeGarrick Theatre 4th March 2023©The Other Richard
Bonnie & Clyde
Photo credit: The Other Richard

My verdict? A true crime musical that taps into the current mood, but also offers a sense of escapism – the music is excellent and the cast put in some phenomenal performances.

Rating: 4*

Bonnie & Clyde runs at the Garrick Theatre until 20 May 2023. Tickets are available online and from the box office. Go behind-the-scenes of their rehearsals in my preview post.

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