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  • Kate Gaul

Bagdad Cafe online 2021

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

3/5 tumbleweeds for Showtime at the Bagdad Gas and Oil Cafe!

Wise Children Company & Old Vic Theatre

Emma Rice and the Wise Children Company bring Percy and Eleonore Adlon’s iconic 1987 film Bagdad Cafe to The Old Vic stage with their playful, visual and emotional style. The German film director’s movie about two women who strike up a friendship at a scruffy diner-cum-motel in the Mojave Desert has acquired cult status over the past three decades.

It’s one of my personal favourites as is the work of Emma Rice and Wise Children Company so I was excited to catch the streamed performance (admittedly very late at night, Australian time!).

Lez Brotherston and Vicki Mortimer’s set is charming with Wise Children Company signature Neon signs and a half caravan. This time we’re in a rusty desert outpost conjured by Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting back-screen of streaking yellow mimicking the sky and changing colour according to the time of day. Rice uses music, miniature props and puppetry to weave an otherworldly aura around an isloated café that could just as easily be a mirage. Wedged in the aisle of the auditorium, as if crashing into the stage, is a life-sized open top car from where Le Gateau Chocolat enwraps the audience in several solo numbers and delivers a haunting performance as husband Sal.

Other reliably entertaining Kneehigh/Wise Children veterans bring the story to life, including Patrycja Kujawska as Jasmine and Sandra Marvin as Brenda. Both offer complex, nuanced performances. With just a few words, the audience is nudged to consider the isolation and loneliness we’ve undoubtedly all experienced over the last year and a half, but more importantly, how it can be overcome.

These women are surrounded by a loose group of lost loners. Brenda's disaffected children, one obsessed with Bach, one with hip-hop and the passing truckers, and her grandchild (incarnated in puppet form) make up a band that slowly becomes a family.

There are plenty of lovely moments but I cringed at the stereotypes throughout. I guess they are hangovers from the film but in the theatre they came across as presented without irony or, sometimes, cultural awareness. One character’s sole job is to shout “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” in an exaggerated Russian accent. The Aussie tourist with boomerang trick is particularly grating. I guess the world has always revolved around the Brits and I certainly question the politics of a theatre that values its own perspectives over cultures that nonetheless prove such a fascination.

Under the musical direction of Nadine Lee, as well as the talent of the actor-musicians, the show is bestowed with a powerfully expressive music and atmosphere. Rice takes the spirit of the film’s final cabaret scene and disperses it throughout the show. Bob Telson’s haunting ballad ‘Calling You’ punctuates the action and none finer than when sung by bass Le Gateau Chocolat.

Favorite moments among the witty touches of theatrical artifice: a performer with tumbleweed attached to a stick rolling it across the stage; another with an inter-title sign - “Time Passes” – in a homage to film.

The production marks the reopening of a London venue that has been at the welcome forefront of so much incredible streaming during our various lockdowns, and it's intriguing to note the format of a run that will follow a month or so of in-person performances with a final spate of online shows as part of the Vic's In Camera series. I recommend their ongoing In Camera programming – done so very well and each production begins with a fair bit of introduction to the set up. We never forget we are watching a live show albeit from the other side of the world.

Devotee of Rice though I am this one is too sentimental for my tastes but nevertheless will satisfy as advertised - “a joyful celebration of togetherness, hope and friendship” – which is maybe all the escapism we need right now.

Kate Gaul


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