Bonnie and Clyde at the Arts Theatre – review
Frances Mayli McCann and Jordan Luke Gage raise a little hell in the West End
Frank Wildhorn, Don Black and Ivan Menchell's musical Bonnie and Clyde has arrived in the West End with a bang, after over a decade's wait. The show, first seen in San Diego in 2009 before a very short (36 regular performances) run on Broadway, has grown a huge cult fan base since, evidenced by this year's concert production selling out the Theatre Royal Drury Lane twice over. Now, it has its first fully staged West End run at the Arts Theatre.
Based somewhat on the true history of the famous outlaws, we follow the pair from their childhood dreams (her a movie star, him a Billy the Kid wannabe) to their first meeting and, eventually, their capture and death. Alongside the protagonists' tale we see snippets of the time's economic depression in numbers such as "Made in America", which gives some context as to why the Barrow brothers in particular have turned to a life of crime.
Wildhorn and Black's songs are the lynchpin of the show, encompassing a variety of styles from gospel ("God's Arms Are Always Open", featuring stunning vocals from Ako Mitchell) to country alongside several heartfelt ballads. Menchell's book, on the other hand, lets the side down somewhat. Scenes often feel like filler between songs, and make quite big leaps for characters. We understand Bonnie wants to be a movie star, but it doesn't fully explain her jump into a life of crime. Similarly, Blanche Barrow's involvement with the gang feels sudden considering her character's whole arc is to be "the best person she can be". There's a subplot about Bonnie-loving Sheriff Ted which is given more weight than it should. The show neither glamourises Bonnie and Clyde nor makes you feel like you fully understand their choices beyond the egotistical notion of fame. They're just as much a mystery – a legend – as when we first meet them.
Regardless of these book-related quibbles, this is an excellent production firing on all cylinders. In the titular roles, Frances Mayli McCann (reprising the role of Bonnie from the Drury Lane concert) and Jordan Luke Gage shine. McCann gives Bonnie the edge she needs to ensure she's not just an ingenue, but has made these dangerous choices herself, with a silky smooth voice best showcased in the solo numbers "How ‘Bout a Dance?" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad". She's a bonafide star who deserves to clean up at the next awards season, and makes clear why "Bonnie" should come first in the duo's name. Gage, with his Cheshire cat smile and wide unflinching eyes, is maybe more creepy than charming but is vocally incredibly impressive as car-loving criminal Clyde Barrow. There's a real grit to his voice, particularly in act one's prison-busting "Raise a Little Hell" and his powerful duet with brother Buck (George Maguire), "When I Drive", is thrilling (also due to director-choreographer Nick Winston's clean choreography).
McCann and Gage have good chemistry, playing up to the juvenile nature of the pair's relationship which uses fighting as foreplay. The show almost plays like a dark romantic-comedy, with Winston including a visual reference to Pretty Woman, though exchanging diamonds for guns. There may also be a Heathers reference for eagle-eyed fans.
Supporting and ensemble performances are equally as good – props to Jim Arnold CDG and Keston and Keston for assembling such a fantastic cast. Natalie McQueen gives a comedy masterclass as Blanche Barrow, her performance of "You're Goin' Back to Jail" is hilarious, as are her quips ("You can't arrest a man for receiving mail"), but she also delivers on those softer moments such as in the duet "You Love Who You Love" with McCann (perhaps one of the best female duets in musical theatre). Maguire is strong as Buck Barrow, pulled between a life of crime and a life of domesticity.
The Arts is a very small theatre, and it's impressive quite how much set designer Philip Witcomb has managed to add to the space, from the pair's infamous (unmoving) car to prison bars and bedroom/bathroom furniture. It's ambitious and can look a little clunky at times, though one can only imagine how impressive the show would look if scaled up in a larger venue... fingers crossed. Nina Dunn's video projections add depth to the space, though sometimes less could be more, and Zoe Spurr's gunshot lighting along with Tom Marshall's sound design provides a high-octane start to the show.
It's so wonderful to see this much-loved musical have its moment after such a long wait – let's hope it continues to raise a little hell in the West End for longer than its scheduled run.