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The Bridges of Madison County

Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Based on the Novel by Robert James Waller
Menier Chocolate Factory
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Sir Trevor Nunn has an obvious fondness for the Menier Chocolate Factory; his Fiddler on the Roof still playing in the West End and his latest venture for the theatre is the UK debut for a musical that made a brief appearance on Broadway five years ago.

Going further back in time, Robert James Waller’s novel on which the musical is based was a bestseller after publication in 1992 and spawned a film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, who also directed.

The staging is the best part of this production, as designer Jon Bausor makes the most of limited space, creating a diamond shape with evocative projections on the back wall and two small revolves supplemented by a track complete with compulsory blue truck, all of which helps keep the running time to no more than 2¾ hours.

The opening song from Jenna Russell’s Francesca is a novel way of delivering a lengthy exposition, relating history that started in wartime “Napoli” and ended on broad swathes of flat farmland in Iowa 20 and then 40 years later.

The Italian-American is a member of the archetypal nuclear Johnson family, with Dale Rapley as her dull farmer husband, Bud, and two warring teenage kids, Michael and Carolyn, respectively David Perkins and the particularly winning Maddison Bulleyment.

A bland life is spiced up in unlikely fashion when Carolyn’s steer (a cow to you and me) makes its way to the state final of the competition to be held at the county fair. What should be an amusing adventure for father and the argumentative children offers Francesca the rare luxury of some free time for three days.

Coincidentally, Edward Baker-Duly in the role of Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer with the looks of an ageing rock star, rolls up in town having lost his way to one of the eponymous covered bridges.

Under the critical, binoculared eye of Francesca’s neighbour and best friend Marge, the middle-aged couple falls instantly into the kind of passionate affair that is more common amongst hot-headed teens.

Within a day, they are sharing a bed, seemingly oblivious to the knowledge that all of the neighbours are talking and even discussing elopement before the remainder of the Johnson family returns with the inevitable blue ribbon for their award-winning cow.

Much of the humour feels very dated and corny, as the kids fight over a red shirt or Marge badmouths her pal. At the same time, the romance is treacly, potentially requiring significant suspension of disbelief about whether events such as these take place in the real world.

On the plus side, the final stages of the evening turn proceedings into what, for some, will be a weepy, adding much-needed pathos.

With the exception of “Before and After You / One Second and a Million Miles” Jason Robert Brown’s compositions, which veer towards country and western, effectively take the narrative forward, which makes sense in an adaptation of a novel, though not that many will stick in the memory. They do showcase the talents of Jenna Russell in particular but also a series of other actors, each of whom is given their three minutes of fame.

This is a long evening designed for ultra-romantics, who will be swept up by an unlikely love story and enjoy the complementary music and inventive staging.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher