Bagdad Cafe (Old Vic, London)
Verdict: Warm and fluffy
The Two Character Play (Hampstead Theatre, London)
Verdict: Requires concentration
Messianic theatre director Emma Rice is offering to heal the loneliness of lockdown with a bit of alternative therapy at the Old Vic: her own adaptation of the 1987 art house movie Bagdad Cafe — best known for Bob Telson’s haunting theme tune, Calling You.
It’s the story of a Bavarian woman, Jasmin, abandoned by her husband beside a freeway through the Mojave desert in the western U.S., who takes refuge in a roadside cafe.
The diner-cum-gas-station is run by Brenda, a brassy Caribbean woman who has kicked her husband out for failing to buy a new coffee machine.
Jasmin brings a suitcase full of lederhosen — and a special kind of remedial magic — to this woebegone spot. It’s an oasis for oddballs who, with the exception of Brenda, quickly take to Jasmin — and Brenda finally comes round, too, as the cafe turns into a sort of petting zoo for waifs and strays.
It’s the story of a Bavarian woman, Jasmin, abandoned by her husband beside a freeway through the Mojave desert in the western U.S., who takes refuge in a roadside cafe
These include an ageing hippy who paints portraits (eventually nudes) of Jasmin; and an Australian yogi with short shorts and a boomerang. It is certainly a lovely, cuddly vision of humanity, set to Bach piano music played by Brenda’s daughter and a beguiling rendition of Telson’s hit tune.
But it’s a slow burn. The caravan gets tidied, Brenda’s daughter has a Bavarian dance lesson. I checked my watch. The minute hand appeared to be stuck.
About halfway through, though, I did start to feel the magic. Gareth Snook’s painter, Rudi, is a charmer. And Brenda’s feckless husband Sal (an actor known as Le Gateau Chocolat) has an extraordinary bass singing voice.
It’s very much a mood piece, though.
Sandra Marvin’s Brenda is stressed but big-hearted, while Patrycja Kujawska’s Jasmin remains a fascinating enigma.
Did it lift me out of my lingering lockdown blues? Not really. But like many alternative therapies, it felt pleasantly indulgent.
The Two Character Play, by Tennessee Williams, is much darker medicine. It premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 1967 and has been revived for their 60th anniversary celebrations. It’s a specialist ‘late Williams’ work, nothing like his great 1940s and 1950s dramas such as A Streetcar Named Desire.
There are, however, parallels with his early autobiographical drama The Glass Menagerie, touching on his relationship with his mentally ill sister, Rose.
The work is about a couple of highly strung actors in a touring production of a play about an agoraphobic brother and sister in the American Deep South.
The thespians have been abandoned by the rest of the cast.
Their characters, meanwhile, are awaiting an insurance payout after their father’s death (he shot their mother, then himself).
Confused? You’re not alone. At times it’s hard to tell whether we’re in the play . . . or the play within the play.
Actors Zubin Varla and Kate O’Flynn go at this murky material with verve and commitment.
Varla’s character, Felice, is a writer — like Williams — desperate to protect his sister. O’Flynn’s Clare is like a dysfunctional Dorothy who has managed to escape from The Wizard Of Oz.
Sam Yates’s impressively drilled production milks every drop of theatricality from Rosanna Vize’s design, which presents a shabby wreck of a set with projections of nostalgic Super-8 video.
There is also a terrific horror-film soundtrack from Dan Balfour, with some sweet snatches of song including Me And My Shadow. But it’s niche viewing; and a great deal more ‘interesting’ than it is enjoyable.
High spirits in this hymn to gin
As a way of returning to life as we once knew it, Gin Craze! (★★★✩✩), at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, hits the spot — as indeed does gin. It’s a musical version (with lyrics by Lucy Rivers) of that Hogarth picture Gin Lane, showing the evils of gin: drunken mothers and penury.
Mary (Aruhan Galieva)
But April de Angelis’s take is different: a ‘Booze-Soaked Love Ballad From The Women Of Gin Lane’. Our heroines Lydia (Paksie Vernon) and Mary (Aruhan Galieva) set up as gin-sellers as a way of earning a living that doesn’t involve prostitution.
This brings them into conflict with the male Establishment: libidinous Henry Fielding (Alex Mugnaioni), the novelist and founder of the Bow Street Runners; and his blind brother John (Peter Pearson). Their opening number, Gin Lane Versus Beer Street, sums up the show.
It’s a clever idea to bring the anonymous women of Gin Lane to rumbustious life. Some of the show is based on history, plus a little-known Fielding novel, The Female Husband. Here, Lydia turns into John and sets up house with Mary, but the idyll doesn’t last. The male authorities, and noisy Germanic Queen Caroline (Debbie Chazen), get the upper hand.
But there’s plenty of boozing, brawling and female solidarity en route to the gallows.
Some numbers are catchy, but the plot can veer off drunkenly and the sense is sometimes lost. Still, hats off to a great cast (in a joint production with English Touring Theatre) for a lively celebration of a girl’s best friend.