It’s always interesting when a show that is successful on either the West End or Broadway is unsuccessful on the other. Clearly, British and American audiences are quite different. Take Broadway’s longest-running show, The Phantom of the Opera, which is set to close after a record-breaking 35 years, whilst the original British production continues to sell out daily. Perhaps American audiences have tired of the classic whilst people still flock to see it in its birthplace.
It was a bold move for Fourth Wall Live to bring Bonnie & Clyde over to the West End after it flopped on Broadway, even with Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes at the helm. They did play it relatively safe, however: first there was a concert version, starring Jordan alongside Frances Mayli McCann (they had first announced Osnes but replaced her after she was “cancelled”). After its sell-out success, there was a West End production at the intimate Arts Theatre – and after that production’s success, it has been revived at the much-larger Garrick Theatre.
Much of the cast from the concert and first West End run have returned, including Olivier and WhatsOnStage nominee Frances Mayli McCann, who is delightful as Bonnie, and Olivier winner George Maguire (not to be confused with the other Olivier-winning George Maguire!).
Clyde is usually played by musical heartthrob Jordan Luke Gage, a 2 x WhatsOnStage nominee, who I interviewed ahead of the world premiere of & Juliet, but he does not perform on Saturday matinées – and that was the only time I was free to review the show.
Instead, we had Barney Wilkinson, who has earned great praise from fans of the show. His rendition of ‘Raise a Little Hell’ was electrifying. His chemistry with McCann was explosive. I resented Clyde for corrupting Bonnie, which ultimately led to her untimely death, yet I also pitied him; he lived in poverty and felt (or perhaps told himself) that a life of crime was his only option.
The show was stolen, however, by the aforementioned Maguire and Jodie Steele (Heathers) as Clyde’s brother, Buck, and sister-in-law, Blanche, respectively. They brought comic relief to this dark musical – which is probably why their characters’ fates were so devastating. Steele perfectly captured the anxiety and frustration felt by the Christian wife of a convicted criminal, and it breaks my heart that one dumb move (listening to her heart instead of her head) cost her everything.
Well-known actress Pippa Winslow returns to the show after starring in the original West End production. She plays Clyde’s sympathetic mother, Cumie, and the iconic Governor Miriam Ferguson (the USA’s second female governor), who oozes girl power.
It was great to see Julie Yammanee onstage again, after previously seeing her in the European premiere of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella; she starred in the concert version of Bonnie & Clyde but not the first West End run so I’m glad she’s now getting her time to shine. She play’s Bonnie’s devastated mother, Emma, who goes on her own journey, from resistance to acceptance. Sadly, this role, unlike Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, does not allow her to show off her voice in all its glory.
Olivier nominee Cleve September (who starred in the original West End production) was thoroughly likeable as Ted Hinton though the creatives took considerable liberties with his character. Hinton, the youngest of the posse that ambushed and killed Bonnie and Clyde, had been a customer of a café that Bonnie worked at, and he later admitted to having a crush on her – which made it difficult to hunt and kill her. The musical, however, combines him with Ray Thornton, Bonnie’s criminal husband. Thus, in the musical, Bonnie is married to a cop, which increases the tension and drama – perhaps unnecessarily.
Dom Hartley-Harris made the most of his limited stage time as Preacher, particularly in the spellbinding number ‘God’s Arms Are Always Open’.
I was honestly quite surprised by the score. Every single song is sublime. The first song, ‘Picture Show’, is an enchanting introduction to the titular characters. In the original production, most of the song was sang by child actors, who chillingly sang the reprise shortly before the pair’s death, but they have been omitted from the new production – possibly to save costs.
The best number is probably the Bonnie and Clyde duet, ‘The World Will Remember Me’, which is later repeated as ‘The World Will Remember Us’, which closes the first act. They’re both show-stopping numbers with poetic lyrics and striking staging. The fun numbers and colourful characters contrast the dull aesthetic and bleak storyline to great success.
McCann’s melancholic delivery of ‘Dyin’ Ain’t so Bad’ is one of the musical’s most beautiful ballads, and its reprise (sang with Clyde) is touching.
‘How ‘Bout a Dance?’ is beautifully chilling. We first hear an instrumental version in the prologue (where we see a dead Bonnie and Clyde) before Bonnie performs the version with lyrics as her first solo number – and the reprise is the musical’s final song. The melody’s repetition serves to remind us not only of Bonnie’s corrupted innocence but also the pair’s fate, which they cannot outrun.
Indeed, we all know how Bonnie and Clyde’s story ends but most, myself included, did/do not know how they got there. The book is not historically accurate but it offers a version of a real-life story that has become folklore.
The elusive pair were, of course, ambushed by officers whilst driving, who shot them more than fifty times, ensuring they would not escape again, after one of the most colourful manhunts in history. I had been looking forward to seeing this real-life event recreated onstage – but it never came.
Instead, following Buck’s death, Bonnie and Clyde drove off into the night, aware that this would probably be their last run on the road. Bonnie placed her head on Clyde’s shoulder, as if sleeping, recreating the opening scene.
If you’re wanting a spectacle, this subtle ending might be a little disappointing, but this musical does not put the focus on the police officers, the manhunt or the media sensationalism; at its core, it’s about a pair of misfits who fall in love and do whatever it takes to survive. It is, in large part, a love story; neither Bonnie nor Clyde had felt seen before they found each other. By ending the musical with Bonnie and Clyde driving off and dying on their own terms, the creatives have ensured that this is Bonnie and Clyde’s story; not just a story about them.
Should the murderous pair be romanticised? Probably not. But the musical wants audiences to understand how and why the pair became dangerous criminals, rather than just condemning them.
Indeed, the piece is unashamedly political, with its intelligent interrogation of the American Dream. Bonnie and Clyde’s dreams have been destroyed by poverty, which, arguably, forces them into a life of crime as a means to be economically free. Yet, Bonnie and Clyde, ironically, apply the American rhetoric of independence and aspiration to their life of lawlessness.
The musical also explores religious fervour, with the aforementioned religious number (Blanche, especially, finds peace in religion), yet Bonnie and Clyde, living in a time of economic deprivation, feel abandoned by God. “I won’t go to heaven; why not raise a little hell?” sings Clyde. “God’s good earth is all dried up – it’s dead!” Bonnie exclaims.
The production positions the pair’s reckless lawlessness as a consequence of abandonment: they have nothing to live for but everything to die for; they’re too far gone to reach heaven so they might as well make the most of the (limited) time they have on earth. The pair are a microcosm for the difficulty of living in poverty.
Indeed, poverty is a breeding ground for crime, and with growing levels of poverty (and thus crime) in both the USA and the UK, this historical, biographical musical could not be more relevant.
Bonnie & Clyde runs at the Garrick Theatre until May 20.