Donmar Warehouse, London – until 3 December 2022
Extraordinary what a difference venue size can make. When I saw this highly unconventional Best Musical Tony winner in a 1000-plus seat Broadway house a number of years ago, I admired it but didn’t particularly enjoy it: it was beautifully done but felt too esoteric, indistinct and (whispers) a bit boring.
In Michael Longhurst’s dreamy new London production however, in a 250-seat theatre where everyone is close to the stage, it’s enchanting and quietly riveting. It also features, in the work of leading lady Miri Mesika, in the role that won Katrina Lenk the 2018 Outstanding Actress Tony, one of the most remarkable British stage debuts in living memory.
The UK premiere of The Band’s Visit actually feels like a return to its roots. The Donmar is far closer in stature to the off-Broadway Atlantic Theatre’s intimate Linda Gross space where David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ chamber musical premiered in 2016 rather than the comparatively cavernous Barrymore that it transferred to, and the various theatrical barns it toured to across America. The material is so much better served by being experienced at close quarters.
Based on a multi-award-winning Israeli movie, the premise of the show is very simple: the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra travel from Egypt into Israel to play at the opening of an Arabic cultural centre in the city of Petah Tikva but, due to misunderstandings and mispronunciation, end up in the desert town of Beit Hatikva. “Welcome To Nowhere” is a ruefully funny early number as a trio of amused but not unkind Beit Hatikvans explain the mistake to the band of powder blue suited musicians, sweating beneath their formal hats and epaulettes. Due to the town’s remoteness, the men are forced to stay overnight and interact with the locals, and that, on the surface at least, is pretty much it.
The plot of Itamar Moses’ book is that gossamer thin, but the detail, humour and humanity in the characters and their relationships is rich and satisfying. They’re a quirky but relatable bunch, from the character simply known as Telephone Guy (Ashley Margolis, oddly haunting) endlessly waiting at the town’s sole public phone for a call from his beloved, to the gawky, chronically shy sweetheart whose never had a girlfriend (an adorable Harel Glazer) to the hilarious and all-too-real uneasy rivalry of a pair of band members billeted together overnight (sublime work from Carlos Mendoza de Hevia and Sargon Yelda).
Then there’s the young couple (Marc Antolin and Michal Horowicz, both heartbreakingly good) whose relationship teeters on the verge of collapse. Moses’s nuanced script presents these people without comment but crucially never judges them: it all manages, under Longhurst’s perfectly pitched direction, to be utterly truthful yet intriguingly odd.
A tapestry of life and community is created before our eyes on Soutra Gilmour’s deliberately downbeat breezeblock, chipboard and fairy lights set. It’s almost palpably atmospheric. Kindness and resignation trump drama here and the lack of dynamism and dramatic focus may prove frustrating to many (it certainly did for me on Broadway!) but this is a piece that, elusive as it is, repays the effort you put in…eventually. The onstage musicianship is also a thing of joy and wonder to encounter at close quarters.
Once again, David Yazbek proves himself a musical chameleon: his scores for The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, even the slightly inferior Tootsie, bear so little relation to each other that it’s hard to believe they’re all the work of the same person, so completely does he align his craft each time with the specific style and milieu of the show he’s creating. Here he has come up with an authentic-sounding score unlike anything in the musical theatre canon. It eschews Broadway-style emoting and grandstanding for the evocative dissonance, rhythms and cadences of Middle Eastern music and instrumentation. It often washes over the audience like a warm wind, but thrills the blood when it has to. There’s a bona fide stand-out number in ‘Omar Sharif’, a gorgeous reverie where café owner Dina sensuously recalls a childhood watching Sharif and listening to Egyptian chanteuse Umm Kulthum (“dark and thrilling, strange and sweet…we dance with them in a jasmine scented wind”) to an understandably entranced band leader (the Israeli film star Alon Moni Aboutboul in an understated but deeply touching performance.)
Dina is played in London by Miri Mesika, a massive star in her native Israel….and it’s not hard to see why: she’s magical. With a singing voice like warm molasses and the kind of magnetic stage presence that can’t be learnt, she is the lynchpin of this wayward but affecting musical. She lends Dina a very particular authority and authenticity, making her the kind of woman you’d want as your friend but who you definitely wouldn’t mess with, conveying every iota of her warmth, strength, humour and innate kindness. She compellingly hints at frustrations and roiling passions beneath her bemused surface, and captures with heartbreaking honesty the sense of an urbane, curious soul trapped in a stultifying small town. Mesika is ravishingly beautiful yet earthy, magnetic and mesmerising…. this is a glorious performance, one that elevates a classy, accomplished production into a must-see event.