The Bridges of Madison County is a love story – but it’s also a story of home, family, and loss. It’s one that first came to be in Robert James Waller’s 1992 romance novel, then it was reincarnated in the Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep-starring film, and then again in Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s Tony award-winning 2013 musical. Now, West End heavyweight Trevor Nunn directs in its UK premiere. And it’s, well – nice.
Set in Iowa in 1965, we follow (mostly) the story of Italian-born Francesca (Jenna Russell) who, despite her girlhood wishes, now lives a wistful, uneventful life as a housewife. She meets National Geographic photographer Robert (Edward Baker-Duly), who crosses her path while on an assignment to shoot the bridges of the musical’s title. Very conveniently, he turns up on Francesca’s doorstep almost the minute that her husband and two children leave to the State Fair for five days – an unsurprising musical theatre contrivance. Romance ensues – obviously – as the pair don’t try very hard at all to fight against the unspeakable connection that sparks between them.
Baker-Duly and Russell are wonderfully watchable in their roles, respectively instilling them with both the nuance and complexity they demand. Russell is technically brilliant and makes every song look totally effortless, as well as being instantly likeable. This is important, considering the show focusses pretty much exclusively on her from start to finish. Baker-Duly captures the rugged yet free-spirited nature of Robert admirably. The two have chemistry, but it isn’t quite the red-hot burning desire that feels necessary to make believable Francesca’s questioning of her whole life up until this moment.
There are some good supporting performances from Dale Rapley playing Fran’s husband, Bud, and David Perkins and Maddison Bulleyment (her professional debut) as the teenage children. Together they conjure up a believably chaotic family dynamic. Perhaps my favourite part of this production, though, is the subplot involving Marge (Gillian Kirkpatrick) and Charlie (Paul F Monaghan), neighbours and friends of Fran and Bud. They portray the couple’s long-lasting, secure love with humour and delicacy; and when they sing, it is a pleasure that I only wish I could have more of.
At nearly three hours, the production could do with a little fat-trimming. Jon Bausor’s revolving set does well to set up the various spaces of the play, but drags down the pace somewhat and doesn’t always feel necessary for us to know where we are. Projections on the back walls (video design by Tal Rosner) help a British audience to picture the rolling landscapes of the American backdrop, but feel a bit too literal and a touch unimaginative.
Overall though, Jason Robert Brown’s stunning score, carried by a troupe of talented artists, makes the everyday, extraordinary. And for that, it’s worth paying a visit to Madison County.
The Bridges of Madison County is playing the Menier Chocolate Factory until 14 September. For more info and tickets see the Menier Chocolate Factory website.