Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 14 September 2019
Jenna Russell’s stunning performance combined with Trevor Nunn’s delicately understated production captures the soul of the story perfectly.
Quiet and understated, this is a musical and story that subtly makes an impact on you with its gentle examination of what it is like to not have your life go quite the way you planned through this wonderfully heart-wrenching love story.
Based on Robert James Waller’s novel which was later transformed into the 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, the musical follows what happens when housewife Francesca meets photographer Robert Kincaid. While initially there is friendship, it soon develops into a romantic and brief affair that has both of them questioning their lives up until this point.
Featuring music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, there are many musical highlights, filled with romance and emotion that are captured beautifully in Trevor Nunn’s simplistically styled and intimately staged production. From Jenna Russell’s gorgeously heartfelt rendition of ‘To Build a Home’ through to Edward Baker-Duly’s tear-jerking rendition of ‘It All Fades Away’, Robert Brown’s music and lyrics are all seamlessly placed within the show, capturing all of the key moments wonderfully.
Nunn’s production gives a true sense of intimacy of the relationship between Francesca and Robert that draws the audience into their brief affair by ensuring that everything is stripped back with no distractions. Particularly impressive is Jon Bausor’s set design that transforms with great ease and style, working alongside Tal Rosner’s gorgeous video design that brings Iowa effectively to life. But it has to be said that there are moments which linger slightly too long and lose meaning, particularly when a character is reflecting on a moment in their life – yet it is always stylishly presented, such as when Francesca thinks of her sister Chiara.
Throughout every high and low, there is not only a romantic wistfulness to the story that is being told but also a sense that many of the characters regret lost opportunities reflected not only through the music but also through Marsha Norman’s book. It is a tender portrait of a brief affair that is never sordid or about lust but two characters who found something in each other that they didn’t know they were missing. This is reflected particularly during the heartbreaking final scenes that leave feelings of grief and regret hanging in air.
However, it would be fair to say that in some respects the book is perhaps slightly flimsy and lacking in genuine passion, but there is an aching tenderness that is pleasing. At around three hours and given the slightness of the plot, it would be fair that it could use some editing in places to keep it sharp.
But what performances. Jenna Russell is exquisite as Francesca, capturing her loneliness and isolation she feels around her family – she loves them but doesn’t have a life of her own as seen when her family return from the state fair. To see her character blossom under the attentions of Robert Kincaid in the photography scene is particularly wonderful. She has great grace and poise throughout out in terms of her character and vocals. Edward Baker-Duly as Robert offers a charismatic performance that is particularly engaging during his performances of ‘Temporarily Lost’ and ‘It All Fades Away’ . Elsewhere, there is great support from Gillian Kirkpatrick as the hilariously nosy Marge and Dale Rapley as the short tempered but well intentioned Budd.
A stunningly simple but heartfelt and engaging production that keeps you mesmerised from start to finish.
By Emma Clarendon
The Bridges of Madison County will continue to play at the Menier Chocolate Factory until the 14th September.