The Bridges of Madison County died what some might consider an untimely death on Broadway partly due to muddled marketing. Based on a novel by Robert James Waller, but more famous as a 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, the advertising promised an unappealingly kind of weepy cornfield romance, something that would air on TV in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Then again, Bridges isn’t not that, especially in the hands of Trevor Nunn at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
The setting is Iowa—so far, so cornfield—and our heroine is Italian housewife Francesca (Jenna Russell), who opens with a gorgeous solo about travelling to America as a young war bride. It telescopes time elegantly, as really only song can—a feat that Jason Robert Brown’s score and Marsha Norman’s book do not manage to replicate at the end of the show, but we’ll get to that. Here, Brown’s lyrics are deftly moving, at once practical and suffused with longing. It’s a skill he displays in solos, especially Francesca’s, throughout the musical, and it’s the strongest work in the show. The power of a small, relatively quiet musical like this one is often in being asked to just sit and listen, but Nunn refuses to demand this of his audience; Russell flits and fidgets around the stage as projections splash onto the walls behind her. Perhaps in mourning for the death of the original Les Misérables staging, Nunn has not one, but two revolves to trundle doorways and refrigerators in and out of Jon Bausor’s clapboard set, so Francesca can pour coffee and adjust chairs.
This unwillingness to sit still and focus characterises what feels persistently amiss about this production. Watching it, it’s not hard to understand the other reason it struggled on Broadway: it’s just too small. The Menier Chocolate Factory is a perfect venue for this small-cast story about a small town and small lives suddenly swept up in an event that is both small and earth-shaking: while Francesca’s family is away at a county fair, she meets and spends four days making love to Robert, a photographer in town to document the titular bridges. It’s quiet and a bit dreamy, with Francesca and Robert’s affair interspersed with interjections from the world outside—the nosy neighbours, phone calls from her family at the fair—in a folksy manner that feels a little too calculated to win laughs from city audiences.
Nunn hits the contrast between the these two worlds—the love affair and everything else—too hard, rendering both faintly ridiculous. Francesca and Robert’s flirtations earn what feel like inappropriate laughs from the audience at several points, including when Francesca enters in what is really a bafflingly terrible pink dress, or a transition from county fair to the couple in bed that seems engineered to make a joke of the fact that they have spent the night together. Nunn makes their affair seem like a dream, drifting somewhere separate from the real world, which is a reading that the musical’s structure partially supports. But it also makes the whole thing feel insubstantial and a bit hollow.
Simply put, while Norman can compose desire—lyrics and melodies that ramble and then slot suddenly into harmony, circumlocuting their way around things with no name, or things the lovers fear to name—Nunn can’t stage it. There’s a lot of clasping, a lot of hand-holding, a lot of quickly kissing between verses, but very little that lights the fire that Norman’s lyrics strive to put into words. It’s tempting to blame Marsha Norman’s book, which is often banal, but such banalities are so often what make up a courtship: it’s the subtext, not the text, that’s missing. There’s a distinct air of awkwardness about the whole proceeding, as if no one in the company has quite managed to convince themselves that this whole idea isn’t ridiculous. Love at first sight, really? Wanting to throw away your entire life and run away with a man after four days, really?
I found myself thinking of Ava Wong Davies’ fantastic True West review and the irrationally furious responses to it—about the way we can put on a musical that is inescapably about desire—female desire, middle-aged female desire—and still seem so embarrassed by the concept of sexual longing. Why does Francesca and Robert’s dreamy, wild, impossible four-day tryst happen? Because they really, really want to fuck. Because each thinks the other is super hot. It’s inescapable, and it doesn’t cheapen it to let their desire display itself in sensual, physical terms. A director who could think in less literal staging terms might have helped—or at least one who could uproot that deep sense of embarrassment.
It comes back, I think, to Nunn’s unwillingness to let the characters just stand and sing. He arrives there eventually, in Francesca and Robert’s final solos, which are very lovely and unfortunately undermined by coming after an extremely clumsy flash-forward sequence that the show would be much, much better without. It’s this flash-forward that seems to push the whole thing inescapably into weepy, prairie sentimentality—but so much of what comes before is much more interesting than that. It’s a character study of a woman, of a four-day mix of desire and memory that ultimately prompts her to decide not so much who she is, but who she wants to be. It would take, I think, a very firm directorial hand and a very assured central performance to maintain that focus, surrounded as it is by a fair bit of dramaturgical clutter. But Nunn diffuses the focus—as if flustered, averts his eyes, and forces us to do the same.
The Bridges of Madison County is on at Menier Chocolate Factory until 14th September. More info and tickets here.