‘Bagdad Cafe’ Review: Emma Rice’s Adaptation at London’s Old Vic

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“Life is a cabaret, old chum.” Oh wait, wrong show. Or is it? Taking on Percy and Eleonore Adlon’s 1987 movie “Bagdad Cafe,” Emma Rice’s music-filled, uber-quirky production boasts everything from onstage guitar, keyboard and drums to puppets, mime, model cars, line-dancing, comedy accents, solo and ensemble numbers, a slash curtain and glitter guns. But despite its heart being manifestly in the right place — definitely, nay defiantly, on its sleeve — the whole thing winds up being considerably less than the sum of its parts.

Rice has always been at her best with a strong script, as in her ravishing re-imagining of Noël Coward’s classic film “Brief Encounter,” or a strong structure, as in her 2017 musical “Romantics Anonymous” (which was on the verge of an international tour beginning in Washington D.C. when COVID-19 struck). But the slighter the narrative the more obviously effortful her work becomes, which makes the play with music “Bagdad Cafe” a particularly tricky proposition, since the screenplay is long on mood and short on tension.

The narrative remains the same: Brenda (nicely earthy and addled Sandra Marvin) is already close to the end of her tether running her run-down, middle-of-the-Mojave-desert motel in California’s Bagdad with a feckless staff and family when everything is thrown into relief. In walks a mysterious, taciturn, coffee-loving German woman improbably named Jasmin Münchgstettner (Patrycja Kujawska), dressed from hat to shoes in traditional, buttoned-up Bavarian costume. Her extended presence brings hope and unexpected happiness to everyone.

While the film lacked dramatic action, that absence was replaced by close-up observation developing and deepening audiences’ responses to the characters caught in controlled strangeness. Everything was, literally, brought into focus. On stage, robbed of close-up and stillness, with Lez Brotherston and Vicki Mortimer’s multiple little set-pieces being comically wheeled on and off, details don’t resonate: everything feels diffuse.

To make up for that, Rice adopts a mostly jocular tone, playing up the playfulness of the cast of eccentrics. Cleaving, for the most part, to the film’s dialogue, her script fails to provide them with balancing depth but instead, as director, Rice gives everyone idiosyncrasies, routines and tricks to perform. This is all seized upon by the highly skilled company with evident delight, especially Ewan Wardrop, winningly delineating and dancing his way through a stream of sweetly off-beat characters.

By contrast, Kujawska offers a distilled, beautifully unfussy performance as Jasmin as both the unintended catalyst and, unexpectedly, as a violinist accompanying Salomé (Nandi Bhebhe), who devotes herself to playing Bach rather than mothering her child (played by a puppet). Operatic bass Le Gateau Chocolat is wasted as Brenda’s estranged husband, sitting in a car off the edge of the stage almost throughout but lending rich heft to the ensemble’s choral moments.

The show’s real problem is that little of this coalesces. There’s plenty of theatricality but the drama is so threadbare that both of Brenda and Jasmin’s would-be strong moments of reconciliation are defined by sentimentality rather than true sentiment, since any emotion elicited by their sudden shared understanding feels unearned.

With so much stage activity, “Bagdad Café” is certainly diverting. The trouble is, it’s diverting you from the realization that, as Gertrude Stein said of another Californian location, there’s no there there.

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