Simon Jenner in the West End
8 October 2022
“This happened not too long ago. You probably won’t have heard of it. It’s not important.”
Which alerts you to the microcosmic flutter of small things; how a word collides cultures to wondrous effect, far more so than anything planned, in The Band’s Visit by David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Itamar Moses (book).
Harel Glazer, Miri Mesika and Marc Antolin. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The wondrousness resides in a refusal to dwell on cultural or national difference, let alone conflict, and let people left behind – indeed lost – by politics and planning work out their true amity.
Originating in a 2007 Israeli indie film it scooped ten Tonys in 2018, and now lands at the Donmar for what must be its definitive UK production. It starts from scratch in a completely different space.
In a south Israel desert settlement the oasis of this musical is in fact a mistake via a wrong inflection. This is Bet Hatikva. They’re the Alexandria Police Band from Egypt, scheduled to give a concert next evening at a cultural institute. There’s no bus out to the right place till morning.
The Band’s Visit chronicles what happens when on best behaviour in sky-blue uniform, eight band members led by Tewfiq (Alon Moni Aboutboul) on a post-1979 Israel/Egypt rapprochement visit, stumbles upon one of those deprived bleak desert settlements hastily thrown up in the 1950s and forgotten.
Not by the inhabitants, often settled by Jews from Muslim countries who tune into Egyptian films televised for decades by Israel every Friday night. It’s just one of many things visitors and restaurant owner Dina (the great Israeli singer Miri Mesika), waiter Simon (Sargon Yelda), and customers bond with. They offer hospitality: food, then beds for the night, and we’re in three storylines.
Ashley Margolis and Carlos Mendoza De Hevia. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The songs “Waiting” and “Welcome to Nowhere” express the residents’ ennui but also a creative cultural mix, the catalytic effect the band have on lives they touch: in a place that might drip frustration if it wasn’t achingly bone-dry. And not only in English, but in snatches of Arabic and Hebrew too. It’s off-beat, intimate, spell-binding with no torch-songs needed.
Tewfiq gets off to a roaring start by asking if Dina’s husband will mind. “I’ll let you know if I see him” starts a wistful romance between the elderly band leader, martinet for too long (as we discover), who unbends when tough-tender Dina gets him to take off his cap and Mesika sings her first solo, “It Is What It Is”, full of sardonic regret, loneliness, the epitome of abandonment all these residents feel in different ways. Confidences are often oblique, incomplete, believable. It’s no conventional one-night romance between these two either. What consummation there is, is curiously appropriate.
Two other storylines depict widowhood and troubled married love, and awkward young romance. Clarinettist Camal (Carlos Mendoza de Hevia) has never completed his concerto, but here is repeatedly asked to play what he has, with unemployed Itzik (Marc Antolin), his exasperated young wife Iris (Michal Horowicz), and her father Avrum (Peter Polycarpou). Avrum’s past as a musician means creative affirmation and joyousness touch Camal, with Polycarpou’s melodically energized admonitions in a lively quartet of “Beat of Your Heart” – also with Yelda’s Simon – for Camal to finish his work, bringing a creative response. De Hevia etches a reticence melted by Polycarpou’s warm host refusing to be shadowed by bereavement – a theme echoed elsewhere, gratifyingly with no easy resolution.
Certainly not till another crisis between the married couple. Directionless Itzik has never come down from the tree where he missed his birthday and Iris storms out. But a clarinet affects a crying child in “Itzik’s Lullaby” with Antolin and de Hevia. Edgily heartwarming, it’s the simplest, most provisional of outcomes.
Haled (Sharif Afifi) has from their airport arrival got a line with young women’s eyes: he’s trouble under threat of sacking from Tewfiq. Inveigling himself into a double-date, Haled ends teaching hapless Papi (Harel Glazer) how to win his Julia (Maya Kristal Tenenbaum). Glazer’s “Papi Hears the Ocean” outbids any American teen awkwardness in its blank refrain (literally, that ocean roar) and hangdog yawp.
As beautiful couple Zelger (Levi Goldmeier) and Haled’s would-be squeeze Anna (radiant Yali Topol Margalith, making her stage debut) flirt round each other on roller-skates – in and out of the stage and back again – Haled choreographs Papi by rote how to reciprocate Julia’s interest without knocking her face-down. Which Haled points out is an opportunity. Afifi and Glazer are a winning mini-bromance with “Haled’s Song About Love”. Yarit Dor’s choreography and movement, as well as her intimacy direction, radiates fluidity, happenstance, physical comedy.
There’s off-kilter waiting-for-your-call comedy as Telephone Guy (Ashley Margolis) hangdogs till dawn for his girlfriend to call, harried slightly by Zelger (Nitai Levi), also waiting for the Egyptian embassy to call. It’s the one upstage fixture in Soutra Gilmour’s fluid set of chairs and tables, with upstage heaped with desolate stone – and a tiny revolve used mostly just on the word “revolve”. Margolis’s “Answer Me” cries out for a ringing refrain.
At its heart this work celebrates an explicit unfolding and sharing of culture between Tewfiq and Dina. Dina’s “Omar Sharif”, with Arab half-tones (curiously not unlike “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”), and their shared knowledge of Egyptian films (“a book is a companion that never lets you down”), brings a magnificent guttural lyricism from Aboutboul in “Itgara’a”, nailing all regret, as we learn some backstory.
Members of the company. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Then, in a song with witty asides (“it’s about fishing”) after hearing Tewfiq’s preferences, both Aboutboul and Mesika launch into “Something Different” to explain sudden intimacy. Mesika throughout is the soul of this musical; her performances both compel and avoid predictability. There’s an edge to lyrics, a catch to sentiment, a set of serrated-edge melodies, that soar out to whatever fragile change hope brings, as Tewfiq recognizes.
It’s interrupted by Dina’s recent flame Sammy (Ido Gonen) whom she abuses to the confusion of Sammy’s Wife (Shira Kravitz in this performance), where it’s Tewfiq’s turn to advise. Finally the unexpected happens, seeded at the start.
A mesmerisingly deft working of three interlaced plots, The Band’s Visit points up inflections of how hours can and can’t change lives. Michael Longhurst directs a packed hundred minutes, where Anna Watson’s lighting subtly shifts a three-way evening out – or in. Zakk Hein’s video design mainly projects words – an analogy of a stark place. There’s no elaboration needed.
As a fable of how ordinary people come together through music The Band’s Visit is as peerless as it’s unexpected, understated as it’s powerful. And with performances and plot led by Mesika – supremely – and Aboutboul, backed by a superb five-piece band, this sings so much more than the lyrics of its parts. Outstanding.