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Bagdad Cafe review – a kooky cabaret on Route 66

The Guardian logo The Guardian 29/07/2021 Arifa Akbar

Just as Wim Wenders’ road movie put Paris, Texas on the map, this drama, based on the 1987 outback film Bagdad Cafe, draws our attention to Bagdad in California.

It is a ghost town along Route 66, tucked away in the Mojave Desert, and is the setting for the petrol station and pit-stop for truckers in which the abrasive cafe owner, Brenda (Sandra Marvin) and the lost German tourist, Jasmin (Patrycja Kujawska) meet. They strike up an unlikely friendship after both their marriages go awry and accrue a motley posse around them.

This production, directed by Emma Rice, stays faithful to the film, almost scene for scene. But where the movie by Percy and Eleonore Adlon captured the down-at-heel loneliness of desert life with Edward Hopper-like scenes of cheap motels and empty skies, Rice’s adaptation trades in overt kookiness and colour. The characters are carnivalesque while the music and magic tricks are brought centre stage.

The result is as grating as it is delightful. The annoyances first: anonymous characters wearing ponchos perform a mime at the start and seem to have no greater purpose than displaying quirky contrivance. One character’s sole job is to shout “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” in an exaggerated Russian accent across the stage, while others look like runaways from a Jim Jarmusch film.

The miniature model of a highway that Rice uses to conjure the outside is wheeled into the cafe and is inventive but brings confusion at first with too busy a stage.

Slowly, the tide turns and what feels spectacularly mannered grows warm and wonderful. There is inspired casting in the cabaret artist Le Gateau Chocolat as Sal, Brenda’s disappearing husband who is marginal to the story but who stands in his battered car at the foot of the stage, singing gloriously. Every note he strikes reminds us that we are in the presence of an almighty operatic voice: deep as a well and rich as, well, chocolate. There are many other musical elements, under the strong musical direction of Nadine Lee, which range from Bach to reggae, and are thrilling, but do not quite match the magic of his performance.


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Lez Brotherston and Vicki Mortimer’s set is charming, too: the rusty desert outpost is conjured by a back-screen of streaking yellows, and the stage incorporates many places at once: the cafe, Brenda’s office, Jasmin’s bedroom and the watchtower outside.

There are other witty touches of theatrical artifice. At one plaintive moment, a character brings on tumbleweed attached to a stick and rolls it across the stage. Someone else brings on an intertitle sign: “Time Passes” as a comic homage to film.

Marvin is a depressed matriarch who manages the transition to lightness convincingly and is a fantastic singer. Her fun-loving daughter, Phyllis (Kandaka Moore), is wonderful to watch while the film’s piano playing son is now an emotionally coiled older daughter, Salomé (Nandi Bhebhe).

Kujawska is inscrutable at first but her gradual thawing feels organic and her relationship with the Hollywood hippie, Rudi (Gareth Snook), turns him from being a caricature into a tender character.

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The show is not only a celebration of friendship and of oddballs coming together to form a roadside family; it is an ode to performance itself, as Rice’s shows often seem to be. It returns to some of the staging devices seen in Wise Children (also the name of Rice’s company), including a caravan split open and the beguiling use of puppets.

It is all outrageously sentimental, too, and yet we find ourselves melting, moved, transported. A riotous cabaret of a production that hails the Old Vic back to business – and show business.

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