The Bridges of Madison County opens with old footage of immigrants arriving in post-war America from Italy. Jenna Russell’s Francesca sings a song that explains how she married a GI, moved to the US and built a home and family with him over a 20 year period in the open country of Iowa. The scene is set, writes Michael Holland.
Life is not easy on the farm, they all work hard – even the bickering children. Holidays are a luxury they rarely afford and Francesca is by now bored with the annual county fair where they often enter a cow in to competition. But outwardly they are all happy with their lot; they know of nothing else.
When husband Bud takes the children and a cow off to Illinois for a few days, she relishes the time at home alone to read and rest. Then Robert Kincaid turns up, a photographer for National Geographic who is a little lost. He seems like a nice man, pleasant and polite enough for Francesca to offer to show him the way to one of the famous roofed bridges of the county. Circumstance leads to her cooking Kincaid dinner and opening a long-forgotten bottle of brandy she had bought especially for a long-forgotten anniversary. Over the next couple of days their feelings for each other grow until there is a tentative first kiss and onto what lies beyond. Theirs is very much a slow burn affair, heightened only by the strings of the small orchestra.
A great set moved around like a car-producing robot factory, bringing in bars, kitchens, bedrooms, main streets, the open plains of America’s heartland and, of course, a bridge. These were all enhanced with clever projections.
The lyrics push the narrative forward so much so that, in fact, the music could have been sidelined altogether. The Bridges of Madison County is all about the story, so, for me, the songs got in the way, no matter how well they were sung. It is about a snapshot of a magical whirlwind romance that appears from nowhere and shows your life to be humdrum and ordinary; a love that catches you up in its vortex and spins you around to a crescendo until you have to make a quick decision on your future – and of those of your loved ones.
The Bridges of Madison County does that because of Trevor Nunn’s direction and great performances from all.
Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RU until September 14th. Times: Tues – Sat 8PM; weekend matinees 3.30PM.Admission: £47.50 – £49.50. Phone: 0207 378 1713
Photos: Johan Persson