Review: The Bridges of Madison County (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Jason Robert Brown’s musical has its UK premiere at Menier Chocolate Factory

Maddison Bulleyment (Carolyn) and Jenna Russell (Francesca)
Maddison Bulleyment (Carolyn) and Jenna Russell (Francesca)
© Johan Persson

The Bridges of Madison County is a so-so sentimental novel by Robert James Waller that became one of those summer beach-reading sensations and was then adapted into a so-so romantic film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Here it is again, now as a so-so slushy musical, directed by Trevor Nunn with enough glacial slowness to stop a heat wave.

It lasted just over two months on Broadway in 2014, and I'm not surprised. What saves its European premiere from utter pointlessness is a glorious, heart-felt, conflicted central performance from Jenna Russell, as Francesca, the Italian-born wife of burly Bud, an Iowa farmer, and mother to their two strapping children.

It's 1965, and Francesca feels distanced from her life, from the girl she used to be and so when Robert, a handsome hippy, and a photographer from The National Geographic pulls into her driveway while looking for the location of one of the area's famous covered bridges and – as luck would have it – while her family is away, she is ready and willing for the swift love affair that defines the rest of her life.

It's sloppy stuff, given some meaning by the fact that Francesca is nobody's victim; she's propelled by a longing for Italy, for adventure and makes her own choices in life. The central dilemma of the piece is that exactly those qualities that make Robert love her – her groundedness, her love for her family, her goodness – are those that mean inevitably they must be pulled apart.

Russell, one of Britain's finest musical actresses, seizes all this and makes the character luminous. She has this repeated gesture of putting her hands to her face, in wonder and doubt, which is entirely convincing; the sweetness and flex of her voice copes admirably with lines that would fell a lesser talent. "Paolo was a boy who loves to swim/ and who knows why I fell for him," is one of the less egregious examples.

As Robert, Edward Baker-Duly also has a fine, impassioned singing voice, although he is perhaps slightly too self-consciously dashing. His final scenes brought a tear to my eye. But the music by Jason Robert Brown (who also wrote the lyrics, with a book by Marsha Norman) rarely escapes from its limited melodic cage; the background accompaniments change a lot but not the essential middle range of the tune.

It's all agreeable without being sensational, and if it passed a little faster I might have been able to forgive the endless scenes with the not very interesting family and the fact that the revolve kept trundling the fridge and cupboards of Francesca's neat kitchen (an over-emphatic set by Jon Bausor, enlivened by video designs by Tal Rosner) back into view. But the endless scene changes slow things down, and the entire show has no idea where to end.

On the plus side, there are warm, sharp performances from Gillian Kirkpatrick and Paul F Monaghan as the nosey but kindly neighbours, an attractive professional debut from Maddison Bulleyment as Francesca's daughter, and when she is given the best song of the night, Shanay Holmes, as Robert's ex-wife, lands it beautifully.