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BWW Review: BAGDAD CAFE, Old Vic

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Emma Rice's new show reopens the London theatre

BWW Review: BAGDAD CAFE, Old Vic BWW Review: BAGDAD CAFE, Old Vic This press night marked my first time in a West End theatre in over 15 months. The whole theatre community - performers, crew, venue staff and audience - have suffered hugely during the pandemic, and frankly it's just a beautiful thing to be able to be together and connect again.

And connecting, in a human sense, is the key theme of Emma Rice's production of Bagdad Cafe.

It's a simple, maybe even simplistic story. Seemingly stern German tourist Jasmin (a captivating Patrycja Kujawska) shows up at the titular truck stop in middle-of-nowhere America, much to the surprise of the members of its small quirky community. Led by matriarch Brenda (a powerful Sandra Marvin) their first reaction is suspicion, but Jasmin gradually wins over the various local characters with her many skills, including cleaning, tidying, magic, playing the violin and portrait modelling.

The show plays on a range of character tropes. There are two young sisters with opposing personalities - Phyllis (the sparky Kandaka Moore), who's sassy and only interested in hip-hop, dancing and hitching a ride with passing travellers, and Salomé (the quietly calm Nandi Bhebhe) who's studious, into classical music and responsible for a baby son.

Rudi (an airy Gareth Snook), the wafty arty type who dresses in hippy trousers, quietly tries to woo the new arrival. Then there's an Australian backpacker (Ewan Wardrop) who just wants to pitch his tent, do yoga and play with his boomerang (not a euphemism!). And of course Jasmin (and her quickly-forgotten husband), both in clichéd Bavarian traditional dress.

I would sometimes take exception to such stereotypes, but in this case they help to illustrate a point. Scratch the surface and we're all the same - looking for a chance to connect with others. To be part of a community, however odd. To feel like we're not alone.

The simple tale is given a major lift by numerous musical and movement interludes, with some really beautiful singing and musicianship by the cast - including the under-used Le Gateau Chocolat. As Brenda's temporarily estranged husband Sal, he's unfortunately relegated to an offstage spot for most of the show - although we do at least get to enjoy his rich bass tones during the ensemble singing.

There are a few neat magic tricks and visual gags. The set and lighting are also appropriately understated. In fact, nothing about this show is really fancy, but together it adds up to something rather like a warm hug to welcome you back into the theatre.

And I think that's pretty much what we all need right now.

Bagdad Cafe is on in person at the Old Vic until 21 August, and also streaming "in camera" from 25-28 August

Photo credit: Steve Tanner


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