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The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Jenna Russell (Francesca), Edward Baker-Duly (Robert). Photo by Johan Persson.
Jenna Russell (Francesca), Edward Baker-Duly (Robert). Photo by Johan Persson.

When you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around / Do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?” So asks the title character in Dear Evan Hansen in the musical number ‘Waving Through A Window’. In The Bridges of Madison County, a broadly similar scenario is presented to Francesca Johnson (Jenna Russell), an Italian who started a new life in the United States during the Second World War, and now, some two decades later in the mid-Sixties lives a stable family life in rural Iowa. The husband, Bud (Dale Rapley) and the kids, Carolyn (Maddison Bulleyment) and Michael (David Perkins), are away for a few days, at the State Fair, though the telephone rings regularly enough with updates as to said what to whom and what they had for dinner.

Along comes Robert Kincaid (Edward Baker-Duly), a photographer with the National Geographic Magazine, taking pictures of – you guessed it – Madison County’s bridges. He is unaccompanied, and in need of directions to a particularly obscure bridge. Francesca lets him know how to get to where he’s going. But benevolent as she is, she also offers to accompany him, ostensibly so he can’t get lost. It’s not difficult to work out where the storyline heads. Ooh, look, there’s a bed in Act Two: what on earth could it be for?

It takes what feels like an absolute eternity to get upstairs (that is, to the bedroom), however, and by the interval, I seriously began to wonder whether the production was meant to be in real-time. I wouldn’t have minded quite so much if the second half were as slow as the first, but at some point, it begins to rush through subsequent years following Francesca and Kincaid’s short-term affair, such that the show is very uneven overall.

There are points of melodrama, at which I struggled to maintain a straight face. The most memorable comes during a scene outside an ice cream parlour (itself quite apt as there was a heatwave going on in London at the performance I attended), where a worst-case scenario (never actually realised) is played out. Hands go up to faces in slow motion as though the silent movie era had suddenly returned. Aside from a brief scene at the State Fair, there wasn’t much opportunity for song and dance: this was hardly the stuff of the Great American Songbook, though Kincaid’s big number towards the end, ‘It All Fades Away’, is memorable enough.

I rather liked Gillian Kirkpatrick’s Marge, bringing some comic relief to what was otherwise a very serious show, whether it came in the form of binoculars as she bizarrely tried to see through her neighbour’s curtains, or when she surreptitiously turns up with dinner, having been nosy enough to have worked out that Francesca hadn’t gotten round to cooking anything for that evening. The orchestra is (just about) larger than the cast – there are ten musicians (under the direction of Tom Murray) and nine actors. The score is beautiful, melodic and varied – a couple of people in my row admitted they came mostly for the music.

There’s more to enjoy than that, though, even if this is basically an overly long and rather inferior version of Still Life by Noël Coward (later adapted for film under the title Brief Encounter). The set (Jon Bausor), although nothing to write home about by West End standards, shifts around quite remarkably in the Menier, and the costumes are all appropriate for the time period and the show’s characters. Video projections (Tal Rosner) help to set scenes as, unfortunately, the dialogue doesn’t always do so in its own right. It’s a slick production, for sure, and one with a curious ending. Best enjoyed by those who (whether they would ever admit to it or not) like Mills and Boon books, this production of The Bridges of Madison County is technically brilliant but for some reason lacks the kind of emotional intensity a story of this kind would benefit from.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Francesca is an Italian immigrant housewife living a happy existence on a farm in the American Midwest. However, when her family go off to the State Fair, she meets Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer on assignment filming bridges in the area. Their initial friendship develops into a brief but passionate affair which has devastating consequences on all of their lives.

CAST
Edward Baker-Duly
Georgia Brown
Maddison Bulleyment
Shanay Holmes
Gillian Kirkpatrick
Paul F Monaghan
David Perkins
Dale Rapley
Jenna Russell

CREATIVES
Book by Marsha Norman
Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Based on the novel by Robert James Waller
Direction – Trevor Nunn
Set & Costume Design – Jon Bausor
Video Design – Tal Rosner
Lighting Design – Tim Lutkin
Sound Design – Gregory Clarke
Movement – Lynne Page
Musical Supervision/Direction – Tom Murray
Orchestrations – Jason Robert Brown

Produced in association with
Michael Harrison & David Ian

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY
13th July – 14th September
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes with one interval
https://www.menierchocolatefactory.com/

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