This adaptation of Percy and Eleonore Adlon's whimsical 1987 film begins with the company sauntering on in ponchos and deliberately raising two hands, one after the other, to make light flood the stage. This simple gesture, repeated throughout the show, has a specific meaning – it conjures two suns in the Mojave Desert – but it also has a general, more generous one. It means hope.
Emma Rice's production, for her own Wise Children company, is very determined to spread hope, love and magic, as it welcomes an audience back into the Old Vic for the first time since Covid closed all theatres. We are still socially distanced, but less rigorously than before. It feels safe and welcoming. Which more or less also describes the show.
The story of Bagdad Cafe is simple. A German woman, Jasmin, is abandoned by her husband at the same moment as Brenda, owner of the Bagdad Cafe, a run-down diner in the middle of nowhere, splits up with her husband Sal. Jasmin moves into the diner, teaches herself magic tricks, plays the violin, and slowly thaws Brenda's unhappiness and resistance by her simple acts of kindness. In so doing, she frees herself.
It's perfect post-pandemic fodder. These trapped and lonely women are surrounded by a loose group of lost loners including a hippy refugee from Hollywood, a yoga-practising Australian camper, a tattoo-stamping Russian, and a hapless waitress. Brenda's disaffected children, one obsessed with Bach, one with hip-hop and the passing truckers, and her grandchild (incarnated in puppet form) make up a band that slowly becomes a family.
Rice lets the action unfold gently, on Lez Brotherston's gloriously simple yet effective set, beautifully lit with panoramic desert sunsets by Malcolm Rippeth. Its fragmentary scenes, filled by snatches of music (courtesy of composer Ian Ross) tell the story well enough, but they never quite gather enough momentum to let emotion flow. It's all very charming and full of light humour, but it only flies when the actors burst into song – Sandra Marvin's Brenda virtually brings the house down when she does – or when Etta Murfitt's choreography vividly illuminates the action.
There are plenty of lovely moments: a snatch of dance that combines German folk and hip hop; a glorious use of the old vaudeville walking up and down the stairs trick; a truly magical bit of business with a boomerang. But sometimes the show seems to strain for effect rather than trusting the action to enchant you.
This feels like a waste of some amazingly fine performers, not only Marvin who makes Brenda's disappointment and sadness tangible, but also Patrycja Kujawska who takes on the more passive role of Jasmin and fills it with a gentle sadness that is really moving. The scene of rapprochement between them is an understated gem. I also longed to hear more from Sal, in the charismatic form of cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat, who spends most of the action marooned in a car plonked at the front of the stalls, occasionally rising to fill the auditorium with the soft rumble of his magnificent voice.
Yet as the excellent cast belt out songs in front of a gold curtain, and Sal conjures glitter explosions from coffee pots, it would take a heart of stone to resist the good-natured warmth and fun on offer. At the close, when the cast and onstage band, led by their musical director Nadine Lee, join to sing in full the famous "Calling You" and are joined by a choir of faces Zoom-ed in from around London, the feel-good effect is complete. The Old Vic is back and it is truly enjoyable to be there.