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

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