Sophie Adnitt reviews Jason Robert Brown's musical The Bridges Of Madison County now playing at The Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark, London.
The Bridges of Madison County
Menier Chocolate Factory
I’m always impressed by how the Menier Chocolate Factory manages to completely transform its auditorium from production to production, and this occasion is no different. Slotted snugly into a corner and featuring two revolves, Jon Bausor’s design is let down only occasionally by some audible crashing about backstage and a porch that visibly judders on and off as required like a nervous performer.
Thankfully there are no such anxieties to be seen among the small but talented cast of The Bridges of Madison County. Based on the 1992 novel (later made into the rather more well known film with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep), Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s musical adaptation comes to London under the direction of Trevor Nunn and led by the ever-brilliant Jenna Russell.
It’s a pity then that one leaves only too aware that this is two hours and forty five minutes you are never getting back. The first act in particular seems to drag on endlessly, and some bizarre structuring in the second act makes things appear to stagger on for longer than they actually do. There’s a hell of a lot that could be cut here without harming the plot – what there is of it. With her husband and children away at the state fair, Italian-born Francesca (Russell) has a four day long affair with Robert (Edward Baker-Duly), a photographer who has drifted into her Iowa town to get pictures of local bridges. And erm, that’s it. There’s a lot of extraneous stuff about the family’s trip to the fair and an entire number given over to Robert’s otherwise absent ex-wife Marian (although in the hands of the golden voiced Shanay Holmes this is one of the best bits of the whole show) – it’s pleasant enough, but you wonder why it’s here.
There's also the fact that there is very little chemistry to speak of between Francesca and Robert. Their romance feels forced, their early interactions more like amicable neighbours than a couple in the grasp of a sudden attraction. It’s difficult to root for them as a couple too, despite the show going way out of its way to excuse the infidelity, giving Francesca’s otherwise reasonable husband Bud (Dale Rapley) a sudden personality transplant in act 2, turning him into a child-hating brute at the drop of a hat. The affair the show hangs on finishes early in the second act, with the rest of it taken up by this strange montage of graduations and weddings (perhaps to suggest that Francesca made the right choice in staying with her dull family?), underscored by a blues-influenced musical number that jars with the strings-heavy style of the rest of the show. This also long outstays its welcome.
This isn’t a bad show by any stretch; it’s just incredibly boring. The pacing is the main issue, and after a while the seemingly endless folky ballads begin to blur together. There’s a lot of talent in this cast, but it’s not being showcased at its best, although Gillian Kirkpatrick and Paul F Monaghan as Francesca’s neighbours add some much needed comic relief – Kirkpatrick as nosey Marge ends up being the most interesting character of the piece. Russell’s Francesca is less complex in translation to the stage, apparently dissatisfied with life, but not enough to commit to doing anything about it. Russell’s acting through song is superb when she gets the opportunity and she too goes a long way to redeem the show.
Overlong and inexplicably bland, The Bridges of Madison County will likely find its fans among those of its composer, but is otherwise a serious misstep in the Menier’s usual track record of musical theatre.