Bagdad Cafe at The Old Vic is Emma Rice’s new adaptation of the 1987 film of the same name. Rice’s style is whimsical and full of wonder and this production lives up to my high expectations following her previous work.
A Bavarian woman is abandoned in the desert off Route 66 and a cafe owner’s husband leaves her to run their business and the family alone.
It’s an absurdist start. Cast members in pashminas, dark glasses and beak-like nose coverings attempt to read a map. A sunset backdrop runs across the stage’s horizon, providing a backdrop for model cars to roar across the highway. These small model cars are paired with tiny puppets, held from the tops of their heads, which are modelled on their human counterparts. This is a lovely touch, as when the puppet is on a centre stage countertop, they are accompanied by the sudden emergence of a physical twin who jumps out from behind onto the stage. This is a quirky introduction to some of our characters and one which I feel works well in a fever dream of a production.
The play hangs together without a significant plot; it is more of an exploration of small human interactions than of an overarching theme or story. I admit I spend the first twenty minutes waiting for a through-line to emerge and become irritated at the lack of one. However, this soon dissipates and I am able to fully admire the pleasure that comes from the work.
Firstly, this is a really funny piece of theatre. The joy of this comedy is that it comes in many forms – the slapstick of a man repeatedly throwing and catching a frisbee; an angry woman in an obscenely tall black wig making overtly sexual noises whilst giving out tattoos, and Brenda’s husband Sal losing his cool at a temperamental car radio.
The soundtrack of the piece is as stunning as the visuals with the film’s haunting song ‘I’m Calling You’ and the repetition of Bach’s ‘The Well Tempered Clavier’. In a piece without a strong plotline, the music provides a necessary thread to tie the varied snapshots of life at the Bagdad Cafe together.
The bows are actually what makes the piece so strong – the cast, musical director and the makeup and hairdressers (equipped with PPE) come onto the stage – a testament to the team effort of theatre production. Theatre is back and the magic is alive and well in another visual masterpiece from Emma Rice.
Bagdad Café is on at The Old Vic until 21 August. For more information and tickets see The Old Vic’s website.