The original US production of ‘The Band’s Visit’ stormed the 2018 Tony Awards and spent 18 months on Broadway. Which is pretty wild when you consider it’s a barely 90-minute musical with no interval, no dance routines, no power ballads and performed in Arabic, Hebrew and heavily accented English.
I’m sure that production was great. But it feels like the right decision to have David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’s musical effectively start from scratch in the UK, in a new production from the Donmar’s Michael Longhurst that couldn’t be in a more perfect theatre.
It’s adapted from a 2007 Israeli indie film about an Egyptian police band that arrives in Israel to play at the opening of an Arab cultural centre in the city of Petah Tikvah, but accidentally gets a bus to Bet Hatikvah, a fictional one-horse town in the middle of the desert. It has no Arabic cultural centre, or, indeed, hotel – something that becomes a problem when the band realise they’re stranded there overnight.
For a moment, it looks like ‘The Band’s Visit’ will be a sort of Middle Eastern ‘Come from Away’ – an aggressively heartwarming drama about a group of people who randomly end up in a small town and everybody grows and learns something, vom vom vom.
In fact it’s a beautiful, haunting work about loss, loneliness and the desire for human warmth. Though an ensemble production, its headed up by Alon Moni Aboutboul’s stiffly dignified old band leader Tewfiq and Miri Mesika’s restless, unfulfilled local cafe owner Dina. She takes a shine to him and much of their night is spent sat at a local restaurant, making small talk, obliquely flirting and enquiring about each other’s pasts – which they only get into tangentially, with huge revelations kept to a minimum.
The other strands to the story are similarly delicate. There’s the band member who calls the Egyptian embassy from a pay phone jealously guarded by a local lad who has been waiting a month for his girlfriend to ring. There’s Sharif Afifi’s Casanova-ish younger band member Haled, who is desperate for something to do and blithely inveigles his way onto a double date at the town’s roller rink. And there’s the stressed young married locals whose tensions are exacerbated by having clarinettist Simon (Sargon Yelda) stay with them.
All of the stories are marked by a gossamer fragility and a wilful incompleteness, a sense we’re just getting flashes. Yazbek’s songs don’t add razzle dazzle. They offer a delicate magic: exotic instrumentals, hesitant ballads and the odd, sparing bit of witty wordplay. Longhurst’s still yet fluid production feels full of the hush and intimacy of the night – the songs are little bursts of wonder, none of them blowing the roof off, all of them making the air tingle. Soutra Gilmour’s set is minimalist in the extreme, but a nifty little revolve keeps the pace up perfectly when needed.
Much of the magic is to do with the exceptional casting (big props to casting director Anna Cooper). In an international ensemble of mostly (possibly entirely) Middle Eastern extraction, the band members all really play instruments, with many taking on substantial acting roles too. There’s something ineffably beautiful about the mournful solo trumpets or clarinets that cut through the night air; and then the percussive, rhymic roar of their final ensemble instrumental tune is pure joy, morning sun exploding over the horizon after a long night.
It’s anchored by Israeli actors Mesika and Aboutboul: her Dina tough, charming, lost; his Tewfiq dignified, wounded, wise. They’re not big flashy roles though: everyone on stage essentially has a small part that they nail, and it feels like the sum is greater than the individual parts, a vivid snapshot of a temporary community.
Should we make anything of the fact it’s a show about Arabs and Israelis getting on with each other? It certainly doesn’t lay it on very thick: nationality, ethnicity and religion are barely touched upon. Indeed, the wry message that bookends the show – ‘it wasn’t very important’ – is perhaps testimony to the fact the writers are wary of making a Big Statement.
Instead it’s a romantic, inventive, deeply disarming show about how we’re all defined by the need for connection. Given it was a hit on Broadway, I’m sure it could be a hit on the West End. But I wonder how easy it would be to hold this sprawling and uniquely talented international ensemble together; and, frankly, it’s hard to see how such an intimate show could possibly have the same impact in a big, formal West End playhouse. Catch it before it slips away into the night.