When the off-Broadway hit The Band’s Visit transferred to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 2017, where it subsequently picked up ten Tony Awards and then a Grammy, there was a hope, an expectation even, that it would eventually find its way over to London. Finally, it has, and David Yazbek and Itamar Moses modestly enchanting musical is now playing at The Donmar Warehouse.
“Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Eqypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important” says the statement projected on to the back wall, yet this story, based on the film of the same name, is far from unimportant. With some slight revisions from the Broadway run, Michael Longhurst directs a stunning production.
The band in question is The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, led by the unassuming Tewfiq Zakaria. They’re headed for the Arab Cultural Centre in Petah Tikvah, but a language barrier issue sees them mistakenly sent to Bet Hatikvah, a small and bleak Israeli town in the middle of a sprawling desert.
With no bus out until the following morning, the band are taken in by the locals for the night, and hands of friendship and understanding are extended in this coming together of Arabs and Israelis.
The irony of watching this show in London is not lost on audiences, as would have been the case in New York, because it cleverly highlights that most people do live outside of the main cities and don’t necessarily have easy access to culture on their doorstep. “There is no Cultural Centre here, there is no culture” says Dina, and the first musical number, ‘Waiting’ describes perfectly the sense of boredom that can permeate small communities.
But here something does happen, the arrival of the band at the café that is the centre of town life, demonstrates the similarities between two peoples, as well as the differences. The band in their smart powder blue uniforms, look out of place against the simple clothing of the inhabitants of Bet Hatikvah. But whether it’s waiting for a phone call, or looking for companionship, the two groups have more in common than it first appears.
Tewfiq, beautifully portrayed by Alon Moni Aboutboul, strikes up a friendship with the owner of the café, Dina. Mira Mesika gives a powerful performance in this role, with an incredible vocal performance, particularly in numbers such as ‘Something Different’. There’s a hinting that something romantic could happen but Tewfiq resists, while Dina hopes that he may be her Omar Sharif.
The music, played mostly on stage by talented actor-musicians, is infused with Middle Eastern charm, and although sounds quite different to probably any other musical in London, it has this gentleness to it that builds to a crescendo in the final two numbers. There’s a truly beautiful song, ‘Itzik’s Lullaby’ performed perfectly by Itzik (Marc Antolin) and Camal (Carlos Mendoza De Hevia) that really sums up the simple elegance of this show.
It is The Band’s Visit ordinariness that makes it extraordinary; it doesn’t follow the typical structure of a musical, and the story is simple but profound. This is a vital piece of theatre, and the arrival of The Band’s Visit in London is something for us all to hear about it, because it is important.
The Band’s Visit is at Donmar Warehouse until 3rd December 2022.