Waiting for Emma Rice’s adaption of the 1987 outback film Bagdad Cafe to spring to life, I’m feeling contented. It’s Friday night. I am relishing in the lavish comfort and legroom offered by the Old Vic’s seats. I have a cold glass (see: plastic cup) of rosé – a rosé which later, post-show, I witness being returned untouched to the bar by a hoity-toity woman exclaiming to the unsuspecting bartender, ‘sorry, babe, it’s just totally bloody undrinkable!’. This is shocking, firstly because it tasted delicious to me (undoubtedly an indicator of my less-than-finely-tuned wine tastes), and secondly because I had no idea how she was focussed on such trivialities after the display of utter magic that had just unfurled on stage.
The story is a simple one: in the tiny desert ghost town of Bagdad, California, along the historic Route 66, lies Bagdad Cafe, a trucker pit-stop and sometimes-purveyor of subpar coffee. Brenda (Sandra Marvin), the frazzled and abrasive cafe owner whose husband has recently left her, has her life interrupted by a lost and also recently husbandless German tourist, Jasmin (Patrycja Kujawska). What follows is a thawing of icy hearts and the forming of an unlikely and heart-warming friendship.
The tale unravels within a kaleidoscope of music, movement, and visual delights. In design from Lez Brotherston and Vicki Mortimer, there is so much upon which to feast the eyes. A dusty desert landscape is conjured through a back screen that continuously shifts hues, from rosy sunset clouds to mellow flaxen mornings. We are flung deftly from location to location – Brenda’s office, Jasmin’s room, the cafe itself – through nifty revolves and glides. All of this is supported by Rice’s use of puppetry and mini models that give us a glimpse into the outside world. It’s oh-so-imaginative and very, very fun.
Brenda’s temporarily estranged husband, Sal, quickly becomes peripheral to the story but is played with utter magnetism by one-man musical phenomenon Le Gateau Chocolat. He lingers in his rusty car at the front of the stage – from which I’m lucky to be only a few feet away – observing the action and chiming in musically with a deep, rich pool of an operatic voice that knocks me for six. In true Rice style, the whole production is enriched by a diverse musical tapestry, ranging from reggae to Bach. Under the expert musical direction of Nadine Lee, as well as the talent of a troupe of actor-musicians, the show is bestowed with a powerfully expressive atmosphere.
Rice’s cast is sensationally skilled, each member surprising us with easter eggs of extra talent – velvety singing voices, exceptional piano playing, tip-top physical comedy. Kandaka Moore as Brenda’s mischievous daughter Phylis, who continually shoots off with a revolving door of tantalising male travellers, is a joy to watch as she dances her way through her days. Nandi Bhebhe, playing Brenda’s second, music-obsessed daughter Salomé, has a voice like honey. Gareth Snook as Rudi, the ever-smiling, long-haired hippy from Hollywood, beautifully carries the character from caricature to tender friend with a heart of gold. There are countless witty touches which the audience collectively delights in – a tumbleweed rolled across the stage on a stick, an Aussie tourist in tiny neon shorts (hilariously played by Ewan Wardrop) mysteriously making a boomerang disappear. It’s fun, silly, and smart all at once. The way the cast functions as a well-oiled machine does well to reflect a large part of what this production is about: togetherness, community, and hope.
The moment at which Brenda succumbs to Jasmin’s attempts at friendship and removes the giant wedge she’s purposefully placed between them is immensely touching. Both Marvin and Kujawska offer complex, nuanced performances that subtly track their characters’ journeys. With just a few words, the audience is nudged to consider the isolation and loneliness we’ve undoubtedly all experienced over the last year and a half, but more importantly, how it can be overcome.
This production is a celebration of friendship and life. It’s also incredibly emotive, and for the duration I’m aware of a swelling feeling lingering in my chest. This emotion overspills in the show’s final throes when, post curtain-call, Nadine Lee comes on stage and shares with us the Bagdad Cafe community choir, their Zoomed faces appearing on a large screen. The cast joins them in singing Bob Telson’s haunting ballad ‘Calling You’. It’s an assault on the emotions, quite frankly. It’s outrageously feel-good. Bagdad Cafe is a rollick of a return for the Old Vic, a fast-moving ride, and you’d have to have a heart of stone to refuse to climb aboard.
Bagdad Cafe is on at Old Vic until 21st August 2021. More info and tickets here.