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Hail to the understudies at Bonnie & Clyde

It is often argued, with justification, that when roles are performed by understudies, it’s pretty much the same experience. It’s the same show, with the same production team, with the same songs being sung, the same choreography being danced, and the same dialogue being spoken. And in most cases, it’s true – whoever plays Madame Giry in The Phantom of the Opera, for instance, always looks and sounds exactly the same, at least to me.

But then there are the understudies and swings in the London production of Bonnie and Clyde, who I came across purely by accident. Tickets were pre-booked with friends – our organiser had double-booked, or she would have done had she actually pushed the button and booked, and I couldn’t make the ‘new’ date as I was down to review elsewhere, and so on and so forth. After some to-ing and fro-ing we eventually settled on a date that would work for everyone who wanted to go. Most, including yours truly, are Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell the Musical fans, and we maintain an interest in where members of the London casts of that show get up to. So the news that a former Strat, Jordan Luke Gage, had been cast as Clyde Barrow was very warmly received.

Gage became indisposed during the matinee performance on the night we went to the Arts Theatre, which meant those of us attending the evening show were treated to his understudy’s first full performance as Clyde. Barney Wilkinson is also Bat alumni, so our group felt privileged to see him. I still maintain, as I asserted in my press night review, that Gage is “sufficiently sinister” as a young man who turns to a life of crime during the Great Depression – it’s all very well telling him to get a job, but even in times of economic boom it is difficult to get a job without experience, and difficult to get experience without a job. Sufficient, however, is an insufficient term to describe Wilkinson’s sheer menace. It’s utterly convincing and perfectly demonstrated the kind of confidence needed to succeed, for want of a better word, at bank robberies.

There’s substantial power in Wilkinson’s singing voice, too – he doesn’t so much ‘Raise A Little Hell’ as set the whole town on fire (figuratively speaking, for the avoidance of doubt), and I found myself genuinely terrified at this Clyde’s angry outbursts, whoever the intended recipient was. Lauren Jones, the understudy for the role of Bonnie Parker, stamped her own authority on the character, with comic timing that was a match for the ever sublime Natalie McQueen as Blanche, as well as a poignancy in ‘Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad’ that brought such emotional depth to the song. It’s a curious thing to feel sympathy for an outlaw!

Charlie McCullagh, one of the show’s swings, covered several roles, demonstrating incredible versatility: there’s Archie, a bank customer who, on spotting the infamous bank robbing duo, asked for Parker’s autograph, and then there’s Captain Frank Hamer, who is tasked with tracking down Bonnie and Clyde. The show’s usual Captain Frank, Ross Dawes, also the show’s resident director, played The Preacher, a role usually played by Ako Mitchell. Dawes is scintillating as the small town pastor leading his congregation through a gospel-esque number, ‘God’s Arms Are Always Open’, coming across as an approachable man of the cloth. Annie Guy, another swing, also made her debut in the show in the matinee. The curtain call at the evening performance was a delight to see – they’d all smashed it, and they knew it.

The on-stage chemistry between Jones’ Bonnie and Wilkinson’s Clyde was palpable. I have no idea how nervous they felt on their debut day – if there was any fear at all (outside their characters’ need to be on the constant lookout for police), it didn’t show. They were nothing short of delightful, and I’d happily see their Bonnie and Clyde again.

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