The Bridges of Madison County – Menier Chocolate Factory
This was, let’s face it, a thoroughly soppy novel, followed by an equally soppy movie. That it isn’t a thoroughly soppy piece of musical theatre is down to a melodically beautiful score by Jason Robert Brown and a luminous performance from the ever-underrated Jenna Russell.
I’m sure you know the story, slight though it is. A man drives up in a truck to the home of a bored middle-aged housewife, looking for directions. He is a photographer doing a series on the covered bridges of the MidWest. Her farmer husband and children are away so she offers herself as a guide and we are asked to believe that they embark on a love affair for the ages.
She then, after four days of bliss, has to decide whether she will leave her husband and children to go away with the photographer in the truck. Spoiler. She’s not going to do it. The end was never in doubt. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. Sorry to sound cynical, but I did warn you that it was soppy.
It doesn’t help that the meat of show is over at the moment she decides to stay with her family but continues for a meandering half hour more, drifting through the rest of their lives in which nothing very much happens very slowly.
There are a number of saving graces. Jason Robert Brown has written for this some of the loveliest songs he has produced since his ravishing Parade. While clearly modern in rhythm and modality, his melodies soar as though Jerome Kern had been standing at his shoulder while he was composing. The show is worth the price of admission for the songs alone. The Chocolate Factory can be an awkward space but the design team of Jon Bausor, Tim Lutkin, Gregory Clarke, and Tal Rosner have done wonders in transforming the small space into a 1960s mid-Western farmhouse.
And, as always, Trevor Nunn has sprinkled his magic over the whole shebang and made it live. I wrote, when he made Fiddler on the Roof work in this theatre, that only a great director can make any space into a plausible setting for the play at hand and he’s done it again, this time with much less promising material. Often, with these resources, it doesn’t seem as soppy as it is.
But what makes The Bridges of Madison County worth seeing is Jenna Russell. It’s some trick to take a boring and bored woman in a print housedress and make her rise above her material so that you want her to get whatever she wants. With a voice so tuneful and secure that the audience can relax into her songs without hesitation, she inhabits the thoughts and dreams of her character until they belong to you too. Soppy, yes, but in Jenna Russell’s skilful body and soul, you almost come to believe.
Blues in the Night – Kiln Theatre
The blues. Blood and guts and regret. Sadness and anger and resignation. The blues are the most basic expression of African-American disappointment, its songs radiating from the Deep South, where, following emancipation, the rural poor found themselves again enslaved, now by poverty and racism, and they thrust North to the cities of Chicago and New York, towards the hope of jobs and a better life for their families.
The blues is their music, deep in the heart of the black experience, its poetry told in starkest terms, in desire for a home and a religion that will make things better and for understanding.
Without the blues there would be no jazz, no American Songbook. It is the simplest of musical forms and one of the most emotionally complex. The language, musical and lyrical, is simple. The meaning is not.
Blues in the Night draws on the vast range of blues songs, some well known, others obscure, and sets them in an imaginary hotel in the Black Metropolis area of Chicago. I was moved to tears by the original Sheldon Epps show in 1980, and again by the Clarke Peters revival in the ‘90s, but somehow the current incarnation at the Kiln just misses the depth of emotion and raw longing of either of these.
This production is manicured, tidy, choreographed, predictable. The blues are anything but. Even the great Sharon D. Clarke, with her soaring voice and unmistakeable presence, and the other fine singers – Clive Rowe, Debbie Kurup and Gemma Sutton - can’t persuade us that they’re anywhere but in a theatre, singing songs, not living them.
Southern Belles – King’s Head Theatre
Tennessee Williams may have been the most prolific playwright of all time. I just tried to count his plays and stopped when I reached 35 full-length and 45 one-acts. There may be more. Everybody knows the great ones – Cat on a hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, at least five others - but in among the great ones there are dozens of lesser plays which are worthy of attention. Two are on view currently at the King’s Head Theatre, under the collective title of Southern Belles, both on a theme of homosexuality which must be why neither was performed in Williams’ lifetime, that being a much less permissive era.
Something Unspoken is as much about class as sexuality, its two characters being a Southern grande dame, faultlessly played by Annabel Leventon with an impeccable Louisiana accent, and her longtime secretary, Fiona Marr as the cowed employee with a rebellious streak. The play appears to be about the older woman’s desire to be elected to office by a local organisation. It is not. It is about the passion between the two women which only slowly emerges as the mistress/servant relationship impedes their ability to express both their love for one another and their changing needs. In Something Unspoken, sub-text is all.
The opposite is true in And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens. There is nothing sub-textual here. Every thought is expressed in dialogue. This immensely sad tale tells of a lonely man who has picked up a thug in a bar and is so desperate for a settled life, a marriage, with a man he can love, that he imbues him with qualities he wants him to have. Candy has money, a business, an enviable life, that he wants to share but, like Tennessee Williams, he is gay and feels guilty about it. Karl, the man he picks up, is straight and violent, a grifter whose only interest in Candy is his money, his liquor, and his quiescence. He makes it clear from the start that he will not sleep with Candy or feed his needs but that doesn’t stop Candy from trying to make him what he so clearly is not.
So desperate is Candy that he’s willing to pimp for him, to find him a girl, anything to keep him. Luke Mullins as Candy manages Williams’ slightly stilted dialogue with ease, and his transformation into a girl, complete with red satin dress and full makeup, to try to please the appalling Karl (George Fletcher), is desperately sad. This is a disappearingly minor piece, but, that he could write such a play displays a side of Tennessee Williams’ own loneliness which breaks your heart.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.