It is, says director Emma Rice, a story to help us through the pandemic. Her adaptation of Percy and Eleonore Adlon’s 1987 movie is a joyful wish: a gaggle of characters, oddly assorted and out of sorts, come together, shifting from jangledness to harmony.
It is also a further step towards making the Old Vic the home of the motel-and-ballad show: with its scenes strung along a song, Bagdad Cafe is a scattier relation of the sublime Girl from the North Country. Inconsequential, sometimes desultory, its characters pop-up types, its plot scarcely more than a whisper, it exults in the story of two women, recently shorn of husbands, whose mutual suspicion melts in a rickety cafe in the Mojave desert.
Miracles of human sympathy come together with delicious conjuring tricks: hurrah for Ben Hart, “magic consultant”. This is perfect Rice territory. No blandness. Beaming warmth. Both homespun and ingenious. The design – billed as being by “Lez Brotherston in cahoots with Vicki Mortimer” – teases the eye, moving from human scale to miniature, with toy lorries, a full-size caravan and characters manipulating puppets of themselves. The title of the central song, I Am Calling You, floats in scribbled neon.
Characters include a furious Russian woman with a Marge Simpson beehive and an Australian who performs comic sleights of hand with a boomerang. Le Gateau Chocolat sends up his bass rumble from a car parked at the front of the stalls; gamine dancer Kandaka Moore scissors across the stage.
Sandra Marvin, as the one-time sad proprietor, wonderfully unleashes a bell-like lament; Patrycja Kujawska gleams with longing as a violin-playing German who adores cleaning. Their affection does not so much develop as jump – into glittering tuxedos, and a catchphrase that is both innocent and laden with innuendo: “I’ll talk it over with Brenda.” We jump with them.