'Bonnie and Clyde' review — a cartoonish take on a killer couple

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

A 2011 Broadway flop is getting a second shot in London, following on from a concert performance that brought original New York leading man Jeremy Jordan to London in January, opposite his current Bonnie, the excellent Frances Mayli McCann.

As it happens the show’s distaff headliner, McCann, turns out to be the biggest reason for director-choreographer Nick Winston’s strenuous production of a relentless musical that seems to want to position the killers of the title as equivalents of sorts to Chicago’s celebrity-seeking murderesses, Roxie and Velma.

The difference is that the earlier, über-durable Kander and Ebb title benefits from a score that bewitches anew with every hearing, whereas Frank Wildhorn’s music is eclectic, to be sure, but almost entirely lacking in personality.

There’s a gospel number, for instance, because, well, why not? But for most of an overlong evening, the songs merely reiterate things we already know, not so much advancing the action as restating the obvious via one too many power ballads that may come across better out of context where they don’t slow down proceedings yet further.

We all know the fate that befell the eponymous duo, whom we first encounter in youthful iterations of themselves, Bonnie wanting to be Clara Bow and Clyde an adroit sharpshooter age 12.

Flash forward and a grinning adult Clyde (a large-eyed Jordan Luke Gage, wearing a fixed smile pretty well throughout) hoves into view to fix Bonnie’s car and so it begins: an affair spent largely on the lam that folds into its orbit Clyde’s brother Buck (George Maguire, the Olivier-winner here in growly form) and his wife Blanche (Natalie McQueen, in what would appear to be an impersonation of the late Madeline Kahn, mixed with Betty Boop).

The overriding desire a la Chicago is to be remembered, which these two certainly were and are, even this many decades after the seminal Arthur Penn film with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

“I like to keep busy,” says Clyde, which I suppose is one way of putting it. And so we find the waitress Bonnie, the lone “ray of sunshine” in Clyde’s life, ignoring admonitions that he is a “bad seed” in favour of the glamour conferred by life in the fast lane, no matter how derailed that journey may turn out to be.

You can imagine the material taking hold in the UK in a way that might induce eye-rolling Stateside, given the inevitable commentary about the “American dream”, or synonyms thereof, to ramp up the thematic stakes.

But the acting by and large is too cartoonish to honour the roiling attentions of a book by Ivan Menchell that often beggars belief: “That man puts the hell in ‘hello’,” Blanche says of Clyde, who on cue gets his own rouser of a number called — what else? — “Raise a Little Hell”.

A likeable presence in the Olivier-winning & Juliet, Gage has a powerful voice that, unlike several of his castmates, soars above a heavily amplified band but he doesn’t begin to communicate the inherent danger of a societal malcontent with serious anger issues.

You’d happily invite this Clyde for afternoon tea, but it’s a stretch to imagine him as a tearaway engaged in a dance with death. A second-act scene of Gage’s model-handsome Clyde in the bath seems preparatory for a fashion shoot, not a showdown with the law.

Cleve September attempts some degree of modulation as the clear-eyed onlooker Ted, delivering warnings before they are too late, but most of the rest of the cast keep everything big and broad in keeping with a pushy score that mostly treads overfamiliar ground.

The signature exception is McCann, who brings a ravishing voice to Laura Osnes’ Broadway assignment as an easy romantic target on a collision course with chaos. “Too late to turn back,” Bonnie sings in a duet with Clyde signalling a woman who has allowed herself to fall too deep into a moral and amorous quicksand.

Bonnie’s fatalism, in McCann’s expert hands, makes for feverishly exciting theatre, which is no bad thing: I mean, if Clyde is going to fall hard for Bonnie, it’s quite nice if the audience does, too.

Bonnie and Clyde is at the Arts Theatre to 10 July. Book Bonnie and Clyde tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Bonnie and Clyde (Photo by Richard Davenport)

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