This impressively dull musical about America’s most beloved mass murderers flopped on Broadway way back in 2011. But clearly there are those who’ve been carrying a torch for the show by Frank Wildhorn, Don Black and Ivan Menchell: it finally recieved a UK premiere at the tiny Arts Theatre last year, which has in turn begat this limited West End run.
I'm afraid I did not love it.
Lyricist Black and writer Menchell’s spin on the story of the outlaw couple who became folk antiheroes during the Great Depression is definitely not slavishly historically accurate. But as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow clearly weren’t really singing syrupy singing ballads while shooting people in the face I think we can allow a musical some liberties.
For me the biggest problem is that the IRL Bonnie and Clyde were – and I don’t mean this to be judgmental – sociopathic murderers, while ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ basically argues that their defining characteristic was that they were an extremely romantic couple, who just happened to incidentally machine gun a lot of people, because 1930s Texas really sucked.
It spends an interminable spell trudging through the duo’s pre-murder days: about three-quarters of the musical consists of plodding country ballads in which Frances Mayli McCann’s Bonnie and Jordan Luke Gage’s Clyde sing about how much they love each other and how tough the world is. Despite the odd moment where Gage’s Clyde goes a bit goth over some hair metal guitar, the general vibe here seems to be that the couple were not that bad and were indeed redeemed by their love: when Clyde kills his first policeman, he’s shaken and sad and Bonnie is horrified. Then they have a big smooch and it’s all fine.
Bonnie and Clyde with no death scene is like Titanic with no iceberg
The trouble is, there’s nothing about their love that obviously feels transcendent or special, they just fancy each other a lot. You’d think it might be action-packed, but the killings are hysterically downplayed, virtually treated as an inconvenience: they’re all confined to the second half, there’s only two (out of 13) actually shown on stage, and the narrative ends before the couple’s final demise.
The story of Bonnie and Clyde with no death scene is a bold move, and I think maybe the idea is that ending their story in a shootout would be a bit tawdry. But this production is in no way moving enough to have earned that – it’s like making a show about the Titanic with no iceberg. It also robs Cleve September’s Ted Hinton – a lawman who was friends with Bonnie who ended up in the posse that killed her – of his final act. His only real role is to wander around looking a bit disappointed in Bonnie, which seems like a tremendous waste of a talented performer.
It’s trashy entertainment, directed by Nick Winston with the unimaginative trudge of a TV melodrama. A director with a bit more visual panache and sense of the dramatic might have got more out of the material. In his defense, he’s not a flashy big name director, I doubt he had the resources of the average West End premiere, and I think this would have been more serviceable in the dinky Arts Theatre. But in the much larger Garrick. it feels underbudgeted and lacking in razzle-dazzle.
On the plus side, if you like sloggy country ballads sung very nicely, McCann and Gage have beautiful voices, as does Jodie Steele as Clyde’s disapproving sister-in-law Blanche. McCann also manages to give Bonnie a sassy, firecracker charisma that largely styles out the fact that her journey from goody two-shoes school girl to trigger-happy outlaw is never really explained. Despite being fantastically entertaining a couple of years back as a preening Romeo in ‘& Juliet’, Gage’s Clyde is low on charisma here – less his fault I think than a failure of the writing, which is so fixated on making Clyde seem like an essentially worthy but mixed up kid that almost totally defangs him.
Ultimately ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ feels weirdly oblivious to the reasons why Parker and Barrow are still famous a century on. Yes, they’ve always been romanticised. But the fact they were vicious criminals has always been intertwined with that. When they died in a hail of bullets in 1934, they achieved a kind of immortality, one that was stoked by the transgressively violent 1965 film. But if this rose-tinted musical romance was all we had to remember them by, I’m sure their memory would soon expire from sheer boredom.