Bonnie and Clyde at Garrick Theatre
A silver, smoking bullet hole greets the audience as they enter the auditorium. An old-timey music jingle – which will become a staple of this show – plays as the story starts at the end, with Bonnie and Clyde in a shot-out car, some grieving their loss, some breathing a sigh of relief. Based on the real-life young criminal couple Bonnie Elizabeth Parke (played by Frances Mayli McCann) and Clyde Chestnut Barrow (played by Jordan Luke Gage), who spent the early 1930s robbing banks, killing cops and speeding down motorways of America with the law in pursuit, this musical is a lively, empathetic take on the duo’s life.
Whilst Bonnie and Clyde could be criticised for romanticising people who were indisputably murderous thieves, this take on their tale cleverly shows them in their humanity – their innocence, love, familial loyalty and frustrated aspirations – against a backdrop of the Great Depression, as well as their quick tempers, disregard for strangers and violent tendencies.
The attention to detail in the production is impressive. Creative licence is taken when it comes to historical accuracy (such as how Bonnie and Clyde met, and the role of Ted Hinton), but when it comes to costumes and even the way the actors look, the resemblance to the originals is uncanny. The costumes overall feel authentic and the dress McCann wears during the second half of the performance is the spitting image of the long, black number with a patterned collar that the real Bonnie is photographed in around 1932-33. McCann and Gage further look very similar to the real figures they’re playing, right down to height and facial structure. The set design is innovative from the start, where a mix of lighting and video effects is stylistically used to represent gunshots and broken glass, and it’s also versatile, morphing from a rural Texan front porch to a hairdressers, a jail and the open road seamlessly.
There’s a lot to like about the songs. They have strong lyrics, a variety of moods and the performers bring impressive vocals to match. You’re Going Back to Jail is fun and really gives you a sense of Blanche’s (Jodie Steele) sense of right and wrong with compassion. Gage has a wonderfully athletic voice and delivers Raise a Little Hell with deep, wrenching emotion. McCann gives a sensual, strapping performance in How ‘Bout a Dance. God’s Arms Are Always Open is a wonderful juxtaposition between evangelical commitment to the American dream, contrasted with Clyde’s darker, potentially more realistic take on this idea. The wily theme music, which plays to create a deeper sense of atmosphere, is really fitting and adds an unnerving tinge to the overall feeling.
Gage is perfect as Clyde: he has an all-encompassing stage presence and really embodies this larger-than-life character, who is sympathetic without sugarcoating his sinister side. The part which shocks the audience isn’t when he is shooting police officers or unfortunate shop attendants, but when he slaps Bonnie (for suggesting he “go straight”). McCann’s Bonnie, meanwhile, is funny, plucky and endearing. She has a sense of innocence and playfulness, is ever friendly and enthusiastic even when robbing a shop and gun-point, and yet you also see her develop a colder, more nihilistic shell as she comes to terms with her inevitable death. Furthermore, Gage and McCann share great chemistry, their characters matching each other in love, anger and delusions of grandeur.
The script is woven with historical details, and whilst it’s not all true, it does a good job of spiking interest in the pair’s story. We hear Bonnie’s poetry and Clyde’s ukulele, the details of their upbringing and their continued close relationship with their families, even when they were on the lam. Perhaps the script is too sympathetic, but it also accurately shows what life at that time was like and creates a deep sense of futility, like they didn’t really have many options. You can’t help but root for the duo and feel a tugging at the heartstrings as we approach their last night on Earth.
Images: The Other Richard
Bonnie and Clyde is at Garrick Theatre from 4th March until 20th May 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for Bonnie and Clyde here: