26 August 2021
BAGDAD CAFE (The Old Vic) Review

Cards on the table:  I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this production, but I told myself to be open-minded and give it the old college try.  I am a huge fan of the 1987 film “Bagdad Café” of which this play is an adaptation.  Not sure exactly where this movie falls among my faves, but most certainly somewhere in the top 20.  That being the case, I was worried that the play version wasn’t going to be as good, so I chose the Old Vic’s “in camera” option, meaning I was on my sofa watching the live broadcast of tonight’s performance rather than at the theatre.

To make the long story short, I didn’t like the play.  Even if we don’t compare it with the film and look at it on its own merit first and foremost, it just doesn’t jive for me.  The whole thing felt like the clown bit of a circus performance.  The opening map sequence (which is way too long) has sound that I think (hope?) is meant to be bird chirping, but sounds exactly how the clowns whistle at the crowds in Cirque du Soleil…  The picnic scene:  circus act.  The tumbleweed on sticks:  circus act.  “Time passes” sign:  circus act.  The toy cars representing comings and goings:  very clever, but the puppets I didn’t see a point in at all, other than, you got it, circus act…

When, after much talking, the cast broke into a song with “coffee machine just needs fixing in a little cafe around the bend”, I knew it wasn’t going to be for me, but kept on watching anyway.  I was nodding along with minimal eye-rolling until we got to some random woman popping up here and there on stage, screaming “perestroika, babushka, net”.  What the actual £$%^?

Things get a little worse if we start comparing the play to the film.  There Marianne Sägebrecht is brilliant as Jasmin.  She has this quiet sadness about her, like she’s drowning in her own unhappiness, and the only thing keeping her afloat are the folks at the hotel.  Here, Patrycja Kujawska’s Jasmin comes across as a happy-go-lucky woman who is stuck at a rural hotel, is a little bored, and is just looking for something to do with her time.  Sure, it’s a Jasmin, but there is nothing special about her.  Similarly, in the film, CCH Pounder as Brenda is a force to be reckoned with.  She is the epitome of a strong independent woman who’s just about had it.  Here, Sandra Marvin’s Brenda is nothing more than batcrap crazy (not unjustifiably so, but nonetheless).  Fundamentally, it’s like the story and the drama have been sucked out of the film with cabaret and tomfoolery left behind.  If, during these times, we’re in need of a play like that, that’s totally cool, but it didn’t need to be a “revamp” of a very-very good movie.

Incidentally, a few years back, I was watching “The Sense of an Ending” with a friend, and, after, we got talking about plot originality, i.e., of the films that are coming out, what percentage have a new and original story.  We agreed that it’s actually not that many (and “Ending” was a pleasant exception), and most everything seems to be a rehashing of something we’d already seen.  I thought maybe this play would enhance the movie in some way to make it a thing of its own.  It didn’t for me.

I should mention George Ikediashi (who I was surprised to find billed as Le Gateau Chocolat, as I thought that was the name of his drag queen persona and wasn’t used for non-cabaret work, but clearly not so).  He is an opera singer with an amazing voice, among other talents, and he can certainly belt it out, but his talents felt a little wasted here.

Emma Rice (who adapted the film into this production) has staged a few things I’d enjoyed in the past, but this was a miss for me, unfortunately.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £0 if you’ve never seen the film.  -£10 if you’ve seen it and liked it…

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