BONNIE & CLYDE

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _WOLVERHAMPTON GRAND.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _9th MAR.

March 5, 2024

images © Richard Davenport.

There’s always the looming hazard of that pesky moralistic tripwire cutting through any biopic – even musical ones – that depict the infamous. Namely, can this be seen to be glorifying or, perhaps worse, even justifying the actions of the deplorable and deranged?

Musical theatre, after all, isn’t exactly shy of championing the anti-hero or even the outright murderous (American Psycho, Sweeney Todd). Heck, the likes of Chicago even satirise the very concept of infamy as celebrity, crime as commodity.

But when slapped on the framework of a true story plucked from history, sensitivities can understandably prickle.

For the most part, Ivan Menchell, Don Black and Frank Wildhorn’s musical retelling of the rise and fall of notorious bandits Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow manages to steer clear of trying to outwardly excuse their thieving, gunslinging ways. Barrow (Alex James-Hatton) is framed as a wrong ‘un roughneck from the off, impervious to common sense and decent suggestion, habitually hopping in and out of prison, and bubbling away in his own mire of anger and frustration. And, when the darkness descends, the show doesn’t shy away from commenting on the character’s descent from petty burglar to murderer. Parker (Katie Tonkinson) is introduced as a sassy waitress with dreams of Hollywood and a penchant for poetry. Her downward spiral feels a touch less defined.

“…two commanding central performances and some jaunty, memorable tunes hold together the slightly unsure, meandering book.”

Bonnie & Clyde is, for the most part, a love story about its titular crooks, and even if it never quite digs deep enough for us to really engage with what makes the duo tick, or indeed quite why they are so inexorably drawn to one another, two commanding central performances and some jaunty, memorable tunes hold together the slightly unsure, meandering book.

And transferred from its recent West End iteration, Nick Winston’s tour is certainly a looker. Its muted greys and blacks, heavy, layered use of Nina Dunn‘s projections and stark casts of Zoe Spurr’s lighting spilling through bullet hole-ridden walls or casting out harshly from the wings certainly makes for an impression. It’s a handsome piece, with more than a flair of the cinematic in its bold, stylised execution. Few touring productions play with quite so much on-stage depth and dimension, nor look quite so striking, so kudos to Winston and designer Philip Witcomb for successfully transplanting this on the road with such visceral impact.

Given the aforementioned quality of its soundtrack, it’s perhaps surprising the show has been relatively untouched here in the UK up until last year. There’s a decided (and understandable) country lilt to it all, but Wildhorn and Black’s soundtrack is littered with ear-worms and a good mix of characterful toe-tappers and some surprisingly heartrending belters, too. Who’d have thought a number about dying together could somehow be affecting, profound, fatalistic and yearning all at once?

Of the cast, the only supporting characters who make any sort of dent or impression are Clyde’s brother, ‘Buck’ (Sam Ferriday) and god-fearing, law-abiding wife Blanche (Coronation Street’s Catherine Tyldesley). Tyldesley is particularly fun and fiesty, in many ways serving as the moral compass of the piece, getting a terrific and stirring duet with Tonkinson about loving who you will, and despairing as her ‘daddy’ keeps finding himself embroiled in his brother’s problematic ways. And though the show doesn’t do a tremendous amount with him, Ferriday is in fine voice, and makes the most of what moments he gets as the conflicted Buck.

“Tyldesley is particularly fun and fiesty, in many ways serving as the moral compass of the piece.”

Elsewhere, a nifty gospel number deftly intercuts preaching and proselytising with Clyde’s increasingly dangerous larceny, and makes good use of singer Jaz Ellington’s soulful vocals, and Winston’s flair as director-choreographer keeps the show spritely and kinetic throughout, even in its talkier moments.

But really, much of the impact of Bonnie & Clyde rests, unsurprisingly, on the shoulders (and lungs) of its two leads, and they are quite criminally good. Tonkinson as Bonnie makes for the perfect aspiring ingenue, naive and distracted enough to the point that she’s giddy at the thought of a hostage asking for her autograph, and still clinging to hopes and dreams of Hollywood even as the bodies pile up. With undeniable charm and appeal, it’s easy to imagine this Parker actually having what it takes to have become a bonafide star (albeit less claret-stained). And whilst the book doesn’t afford Bonnie quite as much introspection or perspective as her beau, she gets some great sings, with Tonkinson delivering an impressive blend of both the powerful and the delicate, complete with signature Texan lilt.

“…it’s easy to imagine this Parker actually having what it takes to have become a bonafide star.”

In what deserves to be a star-making turn, Alex James-Hatton is all fire, rage and truly stellar vocals as Clyde. Lending the bandit the perfect, intoxicating mix of dashing, cocksure allure and fringes of something far more sinister, it’s a barnstorming performance. James-Hatton doesn’t shy away from the lighter, even sillier moments, too, rounding out a seriously impressive outing. And in case it hasn’t been clear, the boy can sing.

Whilst it does fumble about a bit trying to find its perspective, message and purpose (brace yourself for the most perfunctory, cookie-cutter law enforcement you’ve ever known), there’s a lot to enjoy in this sexy, showy retelling of Bonnie & Clyde. Mercifully, it doesn’t seek to glorify or excuse its subjects (though in fairness, it doesn’t probe too deep beneath the surface, anyway). On paper, there’s precious little here that will blow your mind or break the mould, but when it is this strikingly staged, and carried by two absolute powerhouse, tour-de-force performances that inject the enjoyable score with range and heart to spare, it makes for a guns-blazing, roof-raising spark of intoxicating folie à deux.

Would you be criminal to miss it? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly a drive well worth taking.

Headlined by two captivating lead performances, Nick Winston’s sexy, showy tour is an impressive, handsome beast. A memorable soundtrack is given fresh life, and if there’s any justice in this cold, cruel world, then a star is born in James-Hatton.

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