Egyptian Concert Band gets warm welcome in Israel
“When you drink, drink deeply
Drink deeply of the moonlight
drink deeply of the dark
of the loneliness
of the joy”
Lyric to the song Itgara’a
The small but beautiful production of The Band’s Visit gets an intimate staging at the Donmar Warehouse. Its hands across the nations theme is one which had me open mouthed with wonderment and joy. As we arrive, a carousel of musical instrument cases and suitcases are revolving on the stage. Later someone comments that we appear to be going round in circles!
An elegantly light blue uniformed group of men announce that they are the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt and they have landed at Tel Aviv in Israel. Their chief who is addressed as General because of his array of medals is Tewfiq (Alon Moni Aboutboul) a very formal gentleman with impeccable manners, who is their conductor.
Haled (Sharif Afifi)’s Egyptian accent at the bus station leads to a mistake in the name of the town they are going to. Instead of arriving at the Arabic Jewish Cultural Centre in Petah Tikva where the concert is to take place, they are in the centre of the Negev desert in a very small town called Bet Hatikva with poor transport links necessitating an overnight stay. The mistake is akin to going to Zambia when you were meant to arrive in Gambia, This desert area had a majority of Jewish settlers to Israel from North Africa, countries where Jews had learned to live alongside Arabs. So we are not looking at the Palestinian – Israeli conflict. The song “Waiting” has lyrics referring to the tedium of living where they do. Dina (Miri Mesika), Itzik (Marc Antolin) and Papi (Harel Glazer) sing “Welcome to Nowhere”.
They find themselves in a restaurant run by Dina who welcomes them and helps explain that they are in the wrong place. She offers them supper and arranges somewhere to sleep for everyone. She also takes a shine to Tewfiq with his courtly politeness. Tewfiq asks whether Dina’s husband will mind their staying the night? Dina replies, “If I ever see him again, I’ll ask him!”
A dashingly handsome, tall trumpeter Haled (Sharif Afifi, who played Freddie Eynsford-Hill in the recent production of My Fair Lady) asks all the women whether they know Chet Baker’s song “My Funny Valentine”. Could this be a Chet Up line? Apologies for really bad pun! If he asked me, I’d pretend I knew it, just to continue the conversation. He is six foot four of pure sex! Later Haled tells us that when he returns home, his family have arranged a marriage for him. Tewfiq always disapproves of Haled’s flirtation and blames him for arriving at the wrong place.
We meet some of the townsfolk in Avrum (Peter Polycarpou)’s family who play host to Simon (Sargon Yelda) and Camal (Carlos Mendoza de Nevia) of the orchestra. A couple with a baby live there: Iris (Michal Horowicz), the mother working while her husband Itzik babysits. He is in between jobs and working temporarily at the café. Iris is facing the reality of the lack of romance in their lives and senses a lack of drive from Itzik. Avrum sings about his wife who died the year before in “The Beat of Your Heart”.
Simon is the clarinettist whose concerto composition remains unfinished but he is exceptionally talented. The music has elements of Middle Eastern and Israeli rhythms but is also accessible to Western ears and feels really fresh. The song “Omar Sharif” from Dina celebrates the handsome Alexandrian born film star Omar Sharif who starred in Egyptian movies, often watched by Israelis, as well as in the blockbusters Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. At the sole public call box, an Israeli man known only as Telephone Guy (Ashley Margolis, recently seen in Bad Jews) waits day and night for his girlfriend to phone back. He becomes very anxious and edgy when Camal wants to use the phone to call the Egyptian Embassy to find out how to get to the correct place. Telephone Guy has been waiting a month for her to call. These two are beautifully and amusingly choreographed in the dance round the phone box. Later Telephone Guy sings the lovely song “Answer Me”.
The visiting bandsmen leave their mark on their hosts in a very positive way. Haled wants to see the town and goes with Papi to the roller skating rink. Papi hasn’t had a girl friend and Haled teaches him how to approach a lone girl, Julia (Maya Kristal Tenebaum) and gently flirt with her. We are so thrilled for them both, this dumpy shy girl, her eyes shining at having found someone to share skating with and Papi, who was so lacking in confidence.
In the best kind of serendipity, Dina invites Tewfiq to go out for dinner and they share confidences and he sings “Itgara’a” a sentimental song about loneliness and joy.
For a good-natured study in how people from different backgrounds can get along and relate to each other through music, this show is superb. The Band’s Visit may not suit the more cynical of us but I found it charming, hopeful and such a pleasant escape from more political theatre and award it five stars from Theatrevibe, the site that doesn’t do stars!
It is no accident that this show won 10 Tony awards in 2017.
You have until 3rd December to be sure to catch it.
Welcome to Nowhere
It Is What It Is
Beat Of Your Heart
Papi Hears the Ocean
Haled’s Song About Love
Something Different (Reprise)
The Band’s Visit
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Book by Itamar Moses
Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Carlos Mendoza de Hevia
Alon Moni Aboutboul
Yali Topol Margalith
Maya Kristal Tenenbaum
Director: Michael Longhurst
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Choreographer: Yarit Dor
Musical Director: Tarek Merchant
Musical Supervisor: Nigel Lilley
Lighting Designer: Anna Watson
Sound Designer: Paul Groothuis
Video Designer: Zakk Hein
Orchestrations: Jamshied Sharifi
Running Time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Booking until 3rd December 2022
London WC2H 9LX
Tube : Covent Garden
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Donmar Warehouse
on 7th October 2022