Having a gun - albeit a fake one - pointed at my face has never been at the top of my list of fears. The opening night of director Nick Winston’s Bonnie and Clyde at the Arts Theatre changed all that, as the intimacy and sheer immediacy of the venue and efforts by the cast and creative team meant that when George Maguire (Buck Barrow) aimed at the audience, the only sane reaction was to jump under your seat.
Dark, enticing, and enjoyably morally grey, the world will remember this show.
With music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black and book by Ivan Menchell, Bonnie and Clyde is not a show to miss. Set during the Great Depression, a young idealistic Bonnie Parker (Frances Mayli McCann) meets Clyde Barrow (Jordan Luke Gage) after the first time he breaks out of prison, setting Bonnie on a very different path than the one she intended. Bound by chemistry, the pair set off on a robbery spree across the United States, joined eventually by Clyde’s brother, Buck (George Maguire) and his wife Blanche (Natalie McQueen). Thumbing your nose at the United States government poses its own risks, and they are very quickly pursued by the police including Bonnie’s childhood friend, Ted (Cleve September). With a clever use of different styles of music, and Wildhorn’s signature edgy, enticing orchestrations and harmonies, we are drawn into a world where raisin’ a little hell doesn't seem so bad.
Narratively the show has issues. The ending is rushed; we have to infer what happens from what came before, and is a moment where showing rather than telling would have had a bigger impact. The Bonnie and Ted sub-plot, whilst cutesy, is not explained or developed properly and at times seems shoe-horned in. This is partly due to Ted’s character not being fully developed. Whilst September simps after McCann and shows the internal struggle of trying to reconcile the childhood friend he knew, the woman she became and his duty, there is so much more that could be done with this character, if only the story allowed it.
What is does permit is for the tense and the comedic to be perfectly balanced in every moment. The actors fully appreciate and savour what they are doing, revelling in the tense silences and laughter. There are really powerful moments, like the slap, that receives an audible gasp from us because of how much it suddenly changes the entire atmosphere and how it seems like McCann and Gage are just daring us to breathe. The darkness and depth are glaringly clear from the start which makes this one of the best musicals to grace the West End. The more comedic moments are completely natural, with little asides that add to the overall tone of a scene (The “Praise Jesus twice” comment from Lauren Jones comes to mind).
McCann and Gage are as iconic a pair as Bonnie and Clyde. McCann is a powerful presence with an equally powerful voice. Every time she sings, it is breathtaking, letting the full range of whatever she is feeling in the moment wash over us, especially in You Love Who You Love and Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad, songs that are incredibly heart-wrenching, which is how they felt. She captures Bonnie by balancing her darker and lighter aspects, thereby showing every side of her complicated nature. When we think she is one thing, McCann turns around and proves us wrong. An active presence all the way through, McCann is astonishing to watch. Her portrayal of Bonnie’s gradual corruption, idealism and strength of character creates a well-rounded character that we cannot help but root for.
Cocky, charming, and cheeky from the outset, Gage makes an impression as the devil that constantly sits on your shoulder. From a boy who idolises and romanticises the outlaws in the films to a man who has to face the reality of his situation and actions, Gage presents us with a character who, like McCann, challenges our initial assumptions. His transition from ‘devil may care’ to something close to a devil by the end of Act 1, happens over the course of Raise A Little Hell and This World Will Remember Us that contain a slightly dark edge and are by far his strongest performances. His softer side comes through when it calls for it, but Gage thrives in the darkest aspects of Clyde. He clicks with McCann instantly and there is an intimacy between them that makes us feel as though we are intruding on a private moment. They are a pair whose chemistry calls to mind the stormy marriages of the Fitzgeralds or Plath and Hughes. In their scenes, McCann and Gage show us how different Bonnie and Clyde are, whilst simultaneously highlighting their similarities that speak to the heart of their performance, because in the end, they are just two idealistic kids, play-acting and trying to make their way in an unforgiving and broken country. The characters become more realistic as the show goes on, not necessarily disillusioned but attuned to their situation. They grow up but we still see the spark of who they were when we first met them.
In Blanche, McQueen becomes a holier than thou stick in the mud and she is brilliant. Ranging from light relief in You’re Goin’ Back to Jail to heartfelt and steady in That’s What You Call A Dream, McQueen unexpectedly becomes the one truly tragic figure and victim in this musical. Her scenes with Maguire create a nice parallel of stability to the tumultuous relationship of McCann and Gage, and it is these differences that build up the characters even more in our eyes.
The musical equivalent of the phrase ‘live fast, die young’, Bonnie and Clyde is not one to miss. Speaking to the larger issues of the time, the characters have more depth than they initially appear to have, and that is truly due to the remarkable talent of the cast. Dark, enticing, and enjoyably morally grey, the world will remember this show.