Hayes Theatre, June 21
Were Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow alive today they’d just be two more narcissists taking selfies. Even Clyde’s obsession with high-powered firearms wouldn’t delineate him, especially in his home state of Texas. The conundrum that faced the creators of this 2009 musical (as it did the makers of the famed 1967 film) is whether these murderous gangsters should be romanticised.
In the event Frank Wildhorn (music), Don Black (lyrics) and Ivan Menchall (book) do romanticise them, if not as wildly as did the film. But it’s still dodgy territory. Like the nameless people who shot John Lennon or committed the Port Arthur massacre, Bonnie and Clyde pursued fame via gun violence. No one would dare to romanticise the above two unmentionables (or the perpetrators of countless other crimes or acts of terrorism), so why is it okay with these two? Is it merely because it’s set in the 1930s?
The creators did consider the issue, in as much as they spend much of Act One filling us in on why Clyde turned vile – not quite as a justification, but almost. This set-up period grinds like unoiled gears, but once Bonnie and Clyde get together, the show swiftly gathers narrative and emotional momentum – our cue to slide morality aside and take it on its own terms.
At its heart, it’s a love story about two crazy kids with stars in their eyes. Bonnie (Tegan Wouters) would like to gain fame through poetry, acting or singing, while Clyde (Blake Appelqvist) idolised Jesse James and Al Capone. Once together, their dreams play leapfrog with each other, and we are certainly engaged and partially enchanted by their boundless passion.
Appelqvist’s Clyde fills the room, ripping up the swampy Raise a Little Hell, sung when Clyde goes on the warpath after being repeatedly raped while serving a 16-year sentence. Appelqvist’s voice, presence and acting pull us into Clyde’s orbit, and we happily go along for the rollicking ride.
Because Bonnie is a more innately appealing character, Tegan Wouters can be an ample match for Appelqvist, but the shrillness of her more robust singing pushes us back, and stops us caring quite as much as we should. Nonetheless, they have their humorous interplay absolutely humming (as when Bonnie the poet tries to convince Clyde that “Bonnie and Clyde” sounds much better than “Clyde and Bonnie” because nothing rhymes with Bonnie), and comedy is a big part of the show’s success.
Standing out (in strong cast of 16) is Kieran McGrath’s portrayal of Clyde’s gullible older brother, Buck. In an intentionally stylised production directed by Sam Hooper to often sensational effect, McGrath doesn’t let stylisation cloud the truth, his Buck projecting warmth, grit and vulnerability – as well as being a bit thick. Darcy Fisher is charming as the childhood Bonnie, and Milo Hartill amusing as Buck’s God-fearing wife, Blanche.
The problem with Wouters singing is shared by virtually all, because it’s partially built into the melodies, themselves. Wildhorn variously leans on country, gospel, vaudeville and southern rock, but few songs rise to the heights of Raise a Little Hell. Made in America, for instance, has the misfortune to stress the “ca” of “America” – although Hooper has his ensemble snapping and crackling with energised precision on that one. His consistently fluid direction works in perfect harmony with Simon Greer’s ingenious, rough-hewn, wooden pallet set and James Wallis’s lighting. If you’ve done Mary Poppins and Moulin Rouge and want something more intimate (with guns), tick this box, too.