Review – Bagdad Café, Old Vic Theatre, London, 21st August 2021

Bagdad CafeTo tell you the truth, gentle reader, the main reason we booked to see the Old Vic’s Bagdad Café, a Wise Children production directed by Emma Rice, was because we were in London anyway and this was the only show I could identify that was still offering “proper” social distancing in its theatre. And from that perspective, we weren’t disappointed at all. They did a grand job. Huge amount of space around everyone’s bubbles, a reasonable level of mask-adherence, and a sensible, double-entry access to the theatre to avoid too much criss-crossing in the lobby. Ten out of ten and five stars.

Brenda at the BagdadHowever, the show… It feels almost ungrateful to be critical of a return to live performance, created from the best possible motives, love for the theatre, one in the eye to the pandemic, and the power of kindness and love to overcome all obstacles. But sadly, this show completely missed the mark for us. We’ve not seen the original 1987 movie and by all accounts it’s a goodie. It sounds full of heart, pathos, gentle humour and a feelgood factor to soar the heights. I cannot know for sure, but I suspect, that if we had seen the movie, we might have enjoyed the show more. But that oughtn’t to be a prerequisite for any theatre production. A theatre performance should stand on its own and tell its own story, in its own way. Around us I could feel and hear the affectionate reactions of recognition from other audience members – but I’m afraid Mrs Chrisparkle and I both found that the show committed the cardinal sin of theatre; we were bored.

Phyllis - Bagdad CafeOf course, some aspects of the show are still excellent. Lez Brotherston and Vicki Mortimer’s design captured that desolate desert feel superbly, with the café itself being suggested by a battered old caravan which, when reversed, becomes the back wall and door to Jasmin’s motel room. Emma Rice’s trademark use of puppetry works very well, particularly with the creation of Salome’s fully mobile and articulated baby. Amongst the performances, Kandaka Moore lights up the stage every time she appears as Brenda’s fun-loving daughter Phyllis, her exuberant smile and total joie de vivre perfectly pitched to convey the subtle balance of the character’s innocence and thirst for experience. Ewan Wardrop works his socks off in multiple roles, most successfully as the line-dancing look-at-me sheriff Arnie who loves to be loved, but finds his star quality rejected when he has to enforce the law.

Arnie and BrendaIt’s very much an ensemble show, but Sandra Marvin (Brenda) is always a star turn in my book and I regretted how little opportunity she was given to shine with her belter of a voice and fantastic stage presence. I was also looking forward to seeing cabaret artist Le Gateau Chocolat for the first time, having heard great things about his Edinburgh fringe performances, but again much of the time he’s lurking about in a run down car slap bang in the middle of the stalls, and we only get to hear his pleasing baritone in odd moments. Musically, the show is surprisingly disappointing; there’s no doubting the excellence of the skill and quality, but it’s so repetitive! I am Calling You might be a great song, but not on the fifth, sixth, seventh hearing (I lost track). Similarly there’s only so often I could bear to hear Brenda being serenaded in absentia as a Songbird – sometimes, less is more.

Sandra MarvinThere’s a pivotal moment in the story, when Jasmin is surrounded by all the local people in her room, and they’re either doing homework, or painting, or just generally chilling in her company; and Brenda marches in, jealous, and accuses Jasmin of stealing her life; then Brenda regrets her outburst, and her and Jasmin’s friendship really begins. The trouble is, I just didn’t believe a word of it. Brenda’s retraction of her anger, and Jasmin’s acceptance of her apology just felt totally false. Come to think of it, there was a lot I couldn’t believe. All the foreigners are presented as national stereotypes, from the Australian backpacker (straight out of Men at Work’s Down Under video), a Russian with Marge Simpson’s hairdo who just says “glasnost, perestroika, Gorbachev” all the time (totally didn’t get that), and the German tourists in their starched lederhosen, as if they were extras in The Sound of Music’s Salzburg Festival. By the way, after he’s taken it off when he first comes on stage, the Australian’s backpack just sits at the corner of the stage for the rest of the show even though an unspecified amount of time passes; I know it’s not a literal presentation, but even so, that still looked messy.

Bagdad showbizWe’ve seen several Emma Rice productions – from the blissful Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, to the fabulous online Romantics Anonymous last year, as well as her work with Spymonkey and Brief Encounter, and she nearly always hits the flight of fancy perfectly. But, sadly, for us anyway, Bagdad Café just didn’t do it. Ah well, better luck next time. By the way, Saturday night’s show was the last of the normal run at the Old Vic, but there are still streaming performances this week from 25th to 28th August.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

Two disappointing for more

Review – Rebecca, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th November 2015

RebeccaNot for the first time I have to start with a confession – once again, gentle reader, I confess I have never read Rebecca, nor seen the film, nor seen any kind of adaptation; and nor has Mrs Chrisparkle. Several years ago, the Dowager Mrs C was dismayed at this discovery and bought us the paperback to rectify this omission; but neither of us got round to reading it, and it has long ago gone on to a charity shop somewhere. So I thought this new production by Kneehigh was an excellent opportunity to fill this gap in my knowledge – and it would have been for Mrs C too, had she not been called away on urgent business in Italy; so last night was a case of Cornish mystery for one.

Tristan SturrockI have, however, taken the opportunity to read some synopses of the book, fully digested its Wikipedia presence, and taken a look at a students’ crib notes website, and I think I’ve got the measure of it. On which topic, I’ve never seen so many schoolchildren at a theatre, as last night. “Schoolchildren” is probably the wrong word, as I’m sure they were all studying the book for A level. But I would estimate about 60-70% of the (full house) audience were youngsters – evidenced by the ear-threatening levels of noise in the foyers, and the fact that the bars were empty but the queues for ice cream and frozen yogurt almost encircled the building.

Mrs de Winter in that dressAs I had no real knowledge of the book, I didn’t really research the production in advance, but I had no particular reason to suspect it wasn’t a straightforward adaptation of the original. Wrong! Even from my position of ignorance, I was pretty sure that Daphne du Maurier hadn’t included camp Vaudevillian song and dance in her book. Ten minutes in, and I was sighing with disappointment. It brought back to mind the self-indulgent and clever-clever excesses of The Secret Adversary earlier in the year, which I know some friends loved but we found tedious. I guess I was particularly disappointed because I knew this meant I wasn’t going to get the full picture of what the book is about, just some modern interpretation of aspects of it.

Mr and Mrs de WinterHowever, the positive effect of all this side-frilling was to emphasise the serious nature of the protagonists, and that created a huge impact on the proper storyline. Mrs de Winter, Maxim and Mrs Danvers all really stand out as strong characters facing harsh reality; and it’s that juxtaposition of seriousness and frivolity that gives the production its power. The second act in particular was charged with suspense – from the appearance of the coastguard onwards I was riveted to see how it would resolve itself. The first act “dress” scene – even without knowing the story I could see where this was heading – was also very exciting and dramatic, although surely it wasn’t the same dress as Mrs Danvers showed Mrs de Winter earlier on? It looked very different. Minor matter. But I really could have done without all the slapstick running around, and I thought the character of Robert the footman (based on Stan Laurel, maybe?), though executed with humour and agility, made me cringe with embarrassment throughout.

Imogen SageThis is another of those on-trend productions that has some of the cast playing instruments on stage; to its credit, I thought the majority of the live music was really effective and atmospheric (and in particular, beautifully sung), but on the downside, at times, the tension-inducing background music overpowered the conversation on stage. But I really enjoyed Simon Baker’s original sea shanties that gave a true sense of 1930s smugglers’ coves. Leslie Travers’ set manages to encorporate Manderley, the sea, and the old boat house, with very effective compactness. Emma Rice’s adaptation has, I think (from my position of ignorance) done a lot of cutting, and it was only in retrospect – after reading the synopsis of the novel – that I realised that a fire was involved. Maybe I was being dense, or maybe something about the adaptation didn’t make it quite obvious enough. And, linguistically, it definitely takes some liberties. I’m sure Daphne du Maurier didn’t use the F word. It was funny, but so out of place.

Imogen Sage and Tristan SturrockThe production features some terrific performances. I thought Imogen Sage as Mrs de Winter was outstanding. Wide eyed and desperately hoping to be accepted by the household, she is the perfect fish out of water; a picture of innocence in a world of secrets. Her loss of confidence and subsequent growth in influence is beautifully portrayed; and, unsurprisingly, her appearance in “the dress” encouraged some barely concealed gasps of admiration from the audience. Tristan Sturrock is an excellent Maxim, born to a world of wealth and seemingly at home in Manderley, very effective with his anger management issues and very believable when it appears his world is going to come tumbling down. Maybe most impressive of all, Emily Raymond makes a most disturbing Mrs Danvers, silently appearing out of nowhere like a ghost, her face set in rigid determination, her involvement with the late Rebecca too close for comfort. You really wouldn’t want her in your life.

Imogen Sage and Emily RaymondI enjoyed Ewan Wardrop’s sleazeball interpretation of the role of Jack Favell – we saw him in Matthew Bourne’s Car Man fifteen years ago – his acting career certainly answers the question of what do you do when you can no longer dance – and his singing voice is top quality too. Andy Williams is a fine, authoritative Coastguard who dominates the proceedings when investigating Rebecca’s death. He doubles up as Giles, Maxim’s brother-in-law; a spirited performance but I found the whole Giles and Beatrice act just a little too pantomime for my taste.

Emily RaymondSo despite my problems with the vision for this production, I enjoyed it. When it takes the story seriously it’s extremely tense and effective, and the musical interludes are for the most part genuinely stirring. As for the light-hearted moments – well, I must be getting less flippant in my old age! After Northampton, there are just a few more venues on the tour – Oxford, Sheffield and Southampton. Worth seeing for the storytelling – but not for the purist!

Production photos by Steve Tanner