”The Band’s Visit” musical at Donmar Warehouse – review

Miri Mesika in The Band's Visit
Miri Mesika in The Band’s Visit
© Marc Brenner
The Band’s Visit won ten Tony Awards, including the one for Best Musical, after it opened on Broadway in November 2017. The show, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, has enormous gentle charm and a hopeful spirit.

This new production also features the most terrific band of such skill and energy that it sweeps you in its embrace. I’d have been happy to listen to their exhilarating mixture of Arabic music, Klezmer and soft jazz all night – and even to get up and dance. But the story their talents are wound around is very slight.

Based on the 2007 Israeli film and with a book by Itamar Moses, it unfolds the confusions that arrive when the stiff Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra find themselves stranded in a nowhere town in Israel having mistaken a B for a P in the travel instructions they have been given. That tiny error means that the Egyptian players in their smart blue uniforms have to spend a night in a desert town where nothing ever happens instead of getting ready to play their concert at the Arab cultural centre.

Their encounters with the baffled locals are nicely played. The essential message of the show – that love and music offer a hope that can overcome most misunderstandings – is smuggled in with wit and some lovely touches of humour. The lyrics are light and witty, the music utterly splendid.

But I found some aspects of the story under-cooked. While the men of the town and of the band have rich backstories, the women – with the exception of warm and welcoming café owner Dina – are mere cyphers. Even she behaves in ways that suit the story-telling rather than reflecting life. And there’s a sogginess underlying the way every life is touched by the surprise visit.

Michael Longhurst directs with an even touch and a sense of joy, letting the narrative breathe while keeping the action tight on Soutra Gilmour’s clever set, with steps at the back for the band to sit on, and a smartly-used revolve. The comic business on the top step where a love-lorn Israeli boy and a harassed Egyptian violinist are both waiting for a vital phone call is a joy.

The performances are equally well judged. Alon Moni Aboutboul brings a grave dignity and a sense of deeply withheld emotion to the band leader Tewfiq, a man weighted by tragedy but who can conjure the magic of music even in silence. As Dina, who takes him out to dinner to discuss her love of Omar Sharif, Miri Mesika is luminous, the richness of her voice matched by an ability to communicate feelings with a blink of the eye or a shrug of the shoulder.

Peter Polycarpou and Sharif Afifi both bring their charcters to vivid life, he as a widowed violinist for whom the band’s visit conjures memories of love sparking on the downbeat, he as an eager trumpeter, who thinks mention of Chet Baker is the perfect chat-up line. The entire ensemble is lively and engaging. But it’s the band and the music that are the star, the qualities that lift this show above the average and turn it into an uplifting evening.