To 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.
However, 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.
Of 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.
It’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.
There’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.
We’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