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Review: THE BAND'S VISIT, Donmar Warehouse

Review: THE BAND'S VISIT, Donmar Warehouse

Michael Longhurst directs the European premiere of David Yazbek and Itamar Moses's 11-time Tony Award winner musical.

Review: THE BAND'S VISIT, Donmar Warehouse Back in 2017, a small show with a big heart and equally big names was taking Broadway by storm. Based on the Israeli film of the same name, with music and lyrics written by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie) and a book by Itamar Moses, it went on to win 11 of the 12 Tony Awards it was nominated for (one of four musicals in history to earn all the "Big Six"). Five years and a pandemic later, Michael Longhurst has brought the Band to London for its European premiere.

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra are ready to make their debut in Israel. As they're waiting at Tel Aviv's station, it becomes clear that the representatives of the Arab cultural organisation who invited them aren't coming. Frustrated, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, their conductor, decides to take the bus to get to the city of Petah Tikvah.

Due to the difference in their accent, they end up in Bet Hatikvah, a modest town in the middle of the desert where nothing ever happens. Stranded until the morning, they befriend the local people in a wondrous encounter of cultures and personality.

The Band's Visit explores that night in a snapshot of open-hearted hospitality and boundless joie de vivre. It's a story about human connection and culture, wrapped up in a vibrant, eclectic score that brings Middle-Eastern infused music to a main stage. Each character is perfectly crafted in their imperfections. Alon Moni Aboutboul's Tewfiq is a stoic, reserved man who breaks into laughter only once when Dina asks if his late wife enjoyed fishing.

While he is mesmerised by her, he doesn't give in to the deep attraction he feels, politely - but awkwardly - declining her implied propositions but meeting her on a profound, intimate level. Miri Mesika is the true star of the show playing Dina, the romantic café owner. Jaded by time, her heart is still open, but the shine has faded from her rose-coloured glasses.

She looks back on her life with disappointed disillusionment now that she lives in a place where they're only "experts at waiting". They share a gorgeous moment when Tewfiq teaches her how to conduct an orchestra. A deep silence falls as she mirrors his movements quietly.

The main pair is surrounded by exciting performances from actors doubling as musicians. Sharif Afifi is the flirtatious, cocky Haled, who's dreading his return home because of the marriage arrangements laid out by his parents. Taken in by a family in turmoil (Marc Antolin, Michal Horowicz, and Peter Polycarpou) clarinettist Sargon Yelda's Simon grapples with the cause of his unfinished concerto while Camal (violinist Carlos Mendoza de Hevia) desperately tries to get in touch with their embassy.

They bond over the meaning of music with Polycarpou delivering the beautiful "Beat Of Your Heart" as Avrum, an ex musician himself and father-in-law to Antolin's Itzik. The latter is a stirring presence, irritating his wife Iris (Horowicz) with his adrift nature that comes off as laziness. Even the smaller storylines leave an enormous mark, like the nameless Telephone Guy (Ashley Margolis, who leads a hair-raising rendition of "Answer Me") with his unwavering belief that his girlfriend will eventually call the payphone he observes nightly.

This cultural clash might be mediated by English as a lingua franca, but it's through music as well as Arabic and Hebrew that the characters reveal their inner world. The travelling orchestra is completed by percussionist Ant Romero (whose performance is absolutely arresting!), Idlir Shyti on the cello, Baha Yetkin on the oud.

Longhurst directs a minimalist production with a big heart. A revolve adds movement to the stage, which is covered in sand-coloured wood and backed by brick-lined steps where some of the musicians sit. An authentic-looking payphone and a large black wall where a few projections translate the dialogue sparsely look down.

Alongside the set, Soutra Gilmour also designs the stunning light blue uniforms that relax with the characters before ties get re-knotted and jackets re-buttoned before the band leaves. The size of the Donmar is perfect to work with details without losing sight of the audience's ability to appreciate them fully, and there are plenty in the costumes and props, where modern meets outdated and tradition meets progress.

Longurst directs with refreshing accuracy and delicate sophistication, creating visual dynamics that make the space feel immense. The contributions of a cultural consultant (Lina Khatib), an Arabic musical consultant (Attab Haddad), and two dialect coaches solidify Yazbek's well-rounded, stereotype-free, wholesome piece of theatre and establish this production as one for the books.

It's simply sublime, mandatory viewing for a lesson on empathy, kindness, and the power of music.

The Band's Visit runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 December.

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

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From This Author - Cindy Marcolina

Italian export. Member of the Critics' Circle (Drama). Also a script reader and huge supporter of new work. Twitter: @Cindy_Marcolina

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