Saturday 24 February 2024

Bonnie & Clyde

 Curve, Leicester

23rd February, 2024

Well who would’ve thought…

You’ve got to love the power of a devoted fanbase. Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s 2009 musical may not have been able to outrun poor ticket sales when it first opened (it closed within a month of opening on Broadway in 2011), but the show has since become a sleeper hit. Following a London concert in 2022 and two West End runs, Bonnie & Clyde is now in its spiritual home: on the road.

The true story of two loved-up runaway bank robbers is good source material for a musical. In the Dust Bowl of the 1920s mid-West, we meet Bonnie Parker, a waitress from Rowena with her sights set on stardom, and Clyde Barrow, a farm boy from Telico who valorises Al Capone. The two have much in common: big plans, no prospects, and a longing to get out of West Dallas. In love and with a live fast, die young mentality, the pair are pitched as victims of the poverty into which they were born. Blinkered into chasing a skewed American Dream, the couple get stuck in a cycle of evading the law and snubbing authority.

Wildhorn’s score and Black’s lyrics are the engine of the show, establishing character and motivation. Desire, even lust, fuels much of Bonnie and Clyde’s actions. Declaring his love for Bonnie, Clyde sings ‘My name is gonna make the hist'ry books… I got lots of reasons to keep livin'’. Though well-sung, it’s a pity that I left the theatre not humming the tunes I’d just been listening to for two and a half hours, but instead the songs that Wildhorn’s score are reminiscent of. ‘This World Will Remember Me’ is a jazzy bop with more than a ring of Duke Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ to it. Likewise, during Bonnie’s eleventh hour torch song ‘Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad’ I was distracted by how much the melody reminded me of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’.

 It’s also disappointing that Ivan Menchell’s book is underpowered, leaving the show feeling unbalanced and giving it an episodic structure: short scene followed by a song. This is particularly apparent in the second act where the protagonists’ psychologies are forfeited for pastiche. For instance, in a scene where they hold a bank hostage, the customers practically fall over themselves to flatter their gun-wielding guests, requesting autographs with a shotgun pointing at their faces. There is some truth in these comedic scenes: newspaper articles and photos of the couple glamorised their stylish image and lifted the couple to celebrity status. But the second act doesn’t build on what was established in the first, showing the couple desperately racing to their inevitable downfall and leaving motivation to take a backseat. For me, the journey to gin-slinging, jail-breaking love birds seemingly driven to be captured is not convincingly developed. In a surprisingly well-mined genre of musical, Bonnie and Clyde is vastly outshone by the likes of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago and Sondheim’s Assassins, both of which similarly showcase the phenomenon of the celebrity-criminal, but have more memorable scores and razor-sharp satire.

The score and book have their weaknesses, but it is nevertheless superbly performed by the cast. Katie Tonkinson’s Bonnie is a pocket rocket: feisty and with an ambitious glint in her eye. Alex James-Hatton emits a youthful charisma as Clyde that provides an authenticity to the fan-girling on show. Catherine Tyldesley is a stand-out as Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche. She provides much of the show’s comic relief but also carries much of its emotional weight through her relationship with Clyde’s brother Buck. Devoutly religious, a good citizen but also fiercely loyal, she’s caught in the cross-fire of Buck’s blind loyalty to his brother. A comic highlight is ‘You’re Going Back to Jail’, in which she and the salon girls try to convince Buck of the benefits of handing himself in. As Blanche is persuading him that ‘When you have served your time/ We'll still be young and in our prime’, another wife sings ‘Then I met this boy from Tucson… [and] I've now got lots of habits I can't curtail’.

Whereas young love in some musicals may be saccharine, Nick Winston’s production doesn’t put a dampener on it. The show could easily have the feeling of a chamber piece but here it is impressively full-bodied. Philip Witcomb’s atmospheric set and period costumes are darkly lit by Zoe Spurr and gorgeously complemented by Nina Dunn’s video design which adds depth. It’s an aesthetic of grit and glamour which gives the show a texture which the material sometimes lacks. The score may not be deserving of a Best Musical award, but I admire how it has captured the attention of young adults in the same light as Six and Heathers. And if any show can find its audience over a decade after its inception, that’s something to celebrate.

Bonnie & Clyde plays at Curve, Leicester until 24th February as part of a UK and Ireland tour. For further information please visit

Katie Tonkinson and Alex James-Hatton in Bonnie & Clyde. Credit: Richard Davenport

Thursday 22 February 2024

My Beautiful Laundrette

 Curve, Leicester

Wednesday 21st February 2024

“Make yourself indispensable”

Over thirty-five years on, Hanif Kureishi’s tale of cultural and religious conflict, gender constraints and sexual liberty resonates with today’s society as much now as it did decades ago – despite the 80s shoulder pads and neon nylon on display. Following Nikolai Foster’s successful 2019 production, Curve have remounted Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, this time directed by Nicole Behan. While this revival perhaps lacks the vibrancy it had five years ago, the play still shines a spotlight on the wrongs of yesteryear at a time when the country seems to be in a state of sinfully wilful regression.

Omar (Lucca Chadwick-Patel), a down-and-out no-hoper with an alcoholic socialist father of Pakistani heritage, is given a chance to better himself in Thatcher’s world of ruthless Capitalism when his Uncle offers him a job in his decrepit laundrette. Amid a divided society terrorised by National Front skinheads, Omar strikes up an ‘odd-couple’ friendship with his old school bully, Johnny (Sam Mitchell). As their relationship blossoms, together they reinvent the laundrette despite opposition from their family and friends.

Kureishi’s text is often brutal, both physically and verbally, but is also peppered with a distinctly British sense of humour that captures the essence of the working-classes in 1980s London while avoiding the temptation to stray into the maudlin. Kureishi is a deft hand when it comes to innuendo, and the frequent smirks and barely restrained giggles of the cast are infectious. The play gets slightly rushed and muddled towards then end, particularly during the engagement party scene, as Kureishi and Behan try to round the action off neatly, while maintaining the integrity of the characters. And while some characters feel a little broadly drawn – namely Omar’s Uncle Nasser (Kammy Darweish) and Yuppie drug-dealer Salim (Hareet Deol), Laundrette feels unpretentious in its portrayal of modern British multiculturalism.

Thematically, there’s no escaping the comparisons with today’s Brexit and Trump-stoked prejudice. As the far-right encroach ever more into the centre of the national and international political sphere, some of the language evidenced in Laundrette is eerily familiar, as national pride rhetoric becomes an outlet for overt racism. ‘British jobs for British people’ – thus reads a slogan on a placard at a National Front march. The oft quoted argument of Brexiteers similarly fuses seemingly innocuous economic manifestos with an insidious fear of migrants, people of diverse ethnicity and anyone deemed to be ‘other’.

So too resonates the disparate identities of the characters, the sense of wanting to ‘belong’ to a community without feeling wholly connected. Much is made of Omar’s ‘half’ status, he sees himself as British but is demonised by the white supremacist skinheads. Likewise, he feels adrift from the traditions of his Muslim Pakistani family. He’s a person adrift in a society that is unable to accept social evolution. Elsewhere, Johnny struggles to resolve his feelings of loyalty to his friends, and the twisted sense of ‘purpose’ in the casual violence they revel in, with his growing attachment to the Pakistani community – not only to Omar, but Omar’s Papa (Gordon Warnecke – who played Omar in the original film!), who has always offered Johnny sage advice, even in the knowledge that he is hated by him for his racial identity. Rounding off Kureishi’s youth-in-limbo is Omar’s cousin and would-be wife, Tania (Sharan Phull), a free-spirited artist at loggerheads with her conservative, sexist, hypocritical father and her down-trodden mother, whom she loves and admires, but also pities and is repulsed by her culturally-imposed subservience.

Grace Smart’s design is suitably brash in its mix of day-glo plushness and concrete jungle realism – although I felt the neon spray painted champagne flutes a tad over-egged. Incidental music provided by 80s icons the Pet Shop Boys helps set the scene and I enjoyed the brief bursts of classic hits such as ‘West End Girls’ and ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’. While the play is by no means perfect – I felt that several scenes were rather hectic and confusing, some scene changes slightly clunky, and the ending a little too convenient – the production can be engaging, warm and thought-provoking. Foster and Behan’s production, while rough-and-ready at times, is a fine example of pertinent programming. Unlike the film, My Beautiful Laundrette may not become a classic, but it certainly speaks to the current air of displacement and opposing views on national and cultural identity.

My Beautiful Laundrette plays at Curve, Leicester until 17th February, before touring the UK. For full tour details please visit:


Lucca Chadwick-Patel (Omar) and Sam Mitchell (Johnny) in My Beautiful Laundrette. Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Jesus Christ Superstar

 Curve, Leicester

12th February, 2024

And relax, think of nothing tonight

Eight years after Timothy Sheader’s Olivier Award-winning production of Jesus Christ Superstar opened at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to great acclaim, and following runs at the Barbican and in North America, it’s on tour in the UK. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1971 musical, which started life as a concept album in 1970, takes the Passion story (the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion) and turns it into a rock opera. The result is arguably their best work. As a child, I remember loving the studio recordings of Joseph and Cats which we had on VHS, watching them on repeat. We also had Jesus Christ Superstar which I was probably too young to appreciate. To 8-year-old me, the whole thing (and Rik Mayall’s show-stealing performance as Herod alone) was simultaneously strange, terrifying and fixating. Over twenty years later, the experience is the same. In what is a thrilling production which often leaves you holding your breath, you find yourself succumbing to the experience.

Any director is posed with the dilemma of what type of production of Superstar they want to stage. Do you stage a more literal portrayal of events or lean towards something more figurative? Do you impose a high concept on it such as Laurence Connor’s 2012 arena production which was inspired by the Occupy protests? Or perhaps an aerial production like the one opening under the direction of Ivo van Hove in Amsterdam this year? Sheader has a clarity of vision which results in a production which is original, authentic to the show’s origins and is full of strong visual metaphors.

Tom Scutt’s industrial design is flagged by twin rusting steel structures which house the band. Between this, a raked catwalk in the style of the cross dominates the stage, beyond which a barely visible olive tree branch can be seen, hinting at something natural and ethereal. It’s a clean, modern aesthetic which serves the production extremely well. Sheader strips the show’s history of any concepts or obtuse imagery, portraying the story unambiguously and with clear artistic decisions. Music is a key motif: amps can be plugged into the stage and songs are often performed with hand mics and accompanied by guitars. Flight cases become part of the set, and microphones play a vital role in the deaths of both protagonists, including Judas hanging himself using a microphone wire. It’s often visually stunning too. At the end of act one, Judas (Shem Omari James, superb) takes a bribe from Caiaphas (Jad Habchi). Bringing his hands out of the chest, his hands are dripping in silver, stained for the rest of the show as a physical sign of his betrayal and guilt. And in the lead up to the title song, Jesus receives 39 lashes of golden glitter. It’s brutal, striking and oddly fabulous at the same. As Jesus crawls up the cross covered in blood and glitter, he’s strung up on the cross made of microphone stands. ‘Superstar’ is a coup-de-théâtre in itself: musically electrifying and enough to convert a non-believer into the power of theatre whilst being transcendent beyond it as well.

Scutt’s design is gorgeously complemented by Lee Curran’s lighting: from the orange flashes and roaming spotlights which enhance the feeling of a music gig, to bathing the stage in blue and purple during Mary Magdalene’s songs (delivered in a soulful and earthy performance from Hannah Richardson). Lloyd Webber’s music (realised here in Tom Deering’s musical supervision) delivers a full sound. It can go from wistful flutes and lulling piano melodies to strange, dissonant rock sounds within the space of a few bars. It’s a rich and varied score from the brilliant opening number ‘Heaven on their Minds’ to more playful songs such as ‘Herod’s Song’ – I was surprised but not shocked to learn that its melody was a reject for the Eurovision Song Contest! ‘Herod’s Song’ is delivered with panache by Timo Tatzber, here reminiscent of the Emcee from Cabaret. Ian McIntosh as Jesus has a powerful voice, particularly in the belting moments such as ‘Gethsemane’. And Drew McOnie’s spasmatic choreography veers from capturing the frenetic ecstasy of the heady hero worshipping of the early scenes to expertly portraying the intensity of the baying mob. It’s here that the ensemble really comes together, moving as one and filling the stage to an overwhelming effect.

Strange, terrifying, fixating, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the best productions of a musical I’ve ever seen.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays at Curve, Leicester until 17th February as part of a UK tour. For further information please visit

Ian McIntosh as Jesus and Shem Omari James as Judas with the company of Jesus Christ Superstar. Credit: Paul Coltas

Friday 9 February 2024

The Hills of California

 Harold Pinter Theatre

3rd February, 2024, matinee

Is that a true story?

It’s a good one

Jez Butterworth’s exceptional new play sees four sisters reuniting at their childhood home, a former Blackpool guesthouse way past its glory days, in anticipation of their mother’s death. Set in double time, the play moves between the blistering heatwave of 1976 and the sisters’ childhood in the 50s where they dream of becoming a famous close-harmony quartet. The earlier period informs the later one, lending it pathos and showing the past which now haunts the family’s present. Butterworth’s first play since The Ferryman, and his first to debut in the West End, The Hills of California was always going to be a hot ticket. In Sam Mendes’ absorbing production, which never outstays its welcome in a near three-hour runtime, it lives up to those expectations. Rich with detail and characters that are layered with their own inner lives, The Hills of California masterfully explores the legacies of abuse and the way we use stories to shape our lives.

Even in 1976, the unwelcome forces of change have hit the back streets of Blackpool. The local shop is now a Co-Op and there are parking meters everywhere. It’s a shock to Gloria (Leanne Best) who, with her husband and two teenagers, have just travelled ‘200 miles across the Gobi Desert’ to return to her childhood home in the sweltering heat. The Seaview however, once a luxury guesthouse and spa, and never with an actual sea view, has not changed a bit. It’s here she meets youngest sister Jill (Helena Wilson). Jill’s been there all her life, taking care of their mum who’s now in the final stages of cancer. She tells Gloria what her mum’s been up to in recent years, going to the Bingo and winning tea with Ken Dodd that she never went to. Convinced their mum only went to the Bingo because of the all-day bar, Gloria further probes Jill why she didn’t go instead. ‘Me? No fear’ is her response, giving the impression she hasn’t done very much all these years. Jill can be mousy and naïve (smoking in secret even though her mum’s bed-bound) but later shows that, despite being the youngest, she’s also the strongest. Family reunion plays featuring siblings coming together in the face of a parent’s death are not new, from Appropriate (currently being revived on Broadway) to August: Osage County. But in The Hills of California their mother, Veronica, is still hanging on. It adds a sense of time pressure, all these sisters and in-laws gathering for something momentous, heightened by the stifling heat – ‘All the rivers have dried up. It’s like a sign’ Gloria says knowingly. That sense of foreboding is not only about their mother’s death but also the uncertain return of their sister Joan, who’s lived in California after getting a record contract and hasn’t been home since.

In the earlier scenes we see Veronica (Laura Donnelly), also in her glory days. A Blackpool Mama Rose, she devotes her energy and the profits made from her guests to propelling her daughters into the big time. Modelling themselves on the American swing troupe The Andrews Sisters, she dreams of getting them out of performing at tea dances at the church hall and onto the stages of the North Pier and beyond. When a top agent, the American Luther St John (Corey Johnson), auditions the girls on a visit to the town, we see the events leading up to that dream being shattered and Joan going to the States alone. Later, in the third act, the adult Joan (also Donnelly) returns to Seaview in an entrance which is bathed in Natasha Chivers’ atmospheric lighting and accompanied to the building sound of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’. Donnelly is at ease with both roles, the highly strung Veronica contrasting with Joan’s Californian Cool. She has the confidence of someone who travels lightly but has her own emotional baggage and surprises in tow. The decision to double the roles prompts you to reflect on their similarities (particularly the mistakes Veronica made that Joan is trying to avoid). The reunion brings out a bitterness Gloria has harboured for Joan, jealous of the apparent success she’s enjoyed in America and victim blaming her for the events all those years earlier. But Joan is armed with her own story. Telling Ruby of a pizza delivery job she was fired from, we hear how she spent an evening getting drunk with two of the surviving Anderson sisters. A reconciliation of sorts.

Butterworth’s writing and Rob Howell’s detailed design provides a sense of the house’s history and lived-in quality. Each bedroom is named after a US state and the top of the stage hints at a second staircase leading us to imagine a sprawling guesthouse. The parlour is dominated by an anachronous Tiki bar, and we hear comments from an old visitor’s book, ranging from compliments for a lovely bank holiday weekend to ‘Shithole’. Sam Mendes brings the play’s many layers to the stage in all their shades of light and dark, getting the most from his cast. Ophelia Lovibond’s Ruby almost returns to a childlike state over the course of the play, coming downstairs in the middle of a baking, sleepless night clutching a hot water bottle for comfort. Best fits the mold of her mother: strong, funny, antagonistic. And whilst the play belongs to the four sisters, there’s fine supporting work from Bryan Dick, Shaun Dooley and Richard Lumsden.

The Hills of California (along with The Ferryman) feels like a departure from Butterworth’s earlier works. More mature, funny but less reliant on performative stichomythia, with themes emerging from the fullness of character and complexity of story. Its setting is grounded, unlike the more figurative settings of The River or even Parlour Song. And whereas the stories told in Jerusalem give Rooster his legendary status and are a warning about the stories we tell ourselves as a nation, the stories told in The Hills of California have more of a personal resonance. Stories can be told and remembered differently on each outing. They can be used as projections of our own aspirations, suits of armour to hide shame, weapons to cast guilt, vehicles to convince ourselves we’ve found peace. How much do we really change? As the lights fade on the sisters singing ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ twenty years after they last sung it, they still remember the lyrics and intricate harmonies, each sister slotting into place again, an attempt to make peace with one another and themselves.

The Hills of California runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 15th June.

Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell and Sophia Ally in The Hills of California. Credit: Mark Douet.