Been So Long
Book and Lyrics Che Walker, Music and Lyrics Arthur Darvill
Young Vic/ETT co-production
Che Walker has reinvented his 1998 play Been So Long as a rough and ebullient musical comedy.
Whilst the musical element comes courtesy of Arthur Darvill's varied score, the comedy is supplied by Walker on sparkling form, but his occasionally rhythmic and sharply funny dialogue does not disguise the lack of dramatic action or slight plot in this very entertaining piece.
As in the original, Been So Long takes place in a failing bar run by Barney. He is considered, sensitive and hard-working but not sufficiently spirited to make an approach to Simone with whom he is in love. In contrast is Raymond, a local super-stud with a narcissistic ego as evident as his moral values are inconspicuous. "Ain't no sweeter feeling," he says, [than] "grinding a next man's missus". In bizarre counterpoint to these two is loser Gil who comes to the bar on a mission to kill Raymond for taking his girl.
Love interest - or more accurately sex interest - is provided by two girls (whose characters are equally as thinly drawn as the men's) Yvonne and Simone. The former is lustily rapacious and the latter a troubled single mum.
Designer Dick Bird has created a suitably slick bar in which the five lives can collide and, Cage aux Folles-style, has replaced some front seats with cabaret tables, blurring the boundary to good effect.
The songs do not contribute greatly to plot progression or characterisations, but they convey required atmosphere and mass - their achievement is to give the whole a bit of heart. Without this variously blues-rap-funk dimension delivered by a talented band and highlighted with a touch of class from the excellent backing singers (Gemma Knight Jones, Samantha-Antoinette Smith and Jenessa Qua) Been So Long would be insubstantial.
Singer-songwriter Omar Lyefook gives an understated and tender performance as Barney who runs the bar where Simone and Yvonne have come for a girls' night out dressed up in their sub-Mark One frocks.
Gil is harmlessly off-centre and well played by Harry Hepple but Walker's book fails to give him real menace and his direction makes him laughable when he takes out a machete from the back of his jacket thereby signalling no real threat of violence.
Cat Simmons is suitably vulnerable as emotionally damaged Simone who inevitably falls victim to Arinze Kene' reprehensible Raymond.
Naana Agyei-Ampadu is striking as Yvonne who gets some scene-stealing pieces to relish. She is memorable as tartily Amazonian in a too-short bright yellow dress; it is a vision that complements her monologue in stylised language in which she recounts her sexual fantasy with a satyr in a local park.
It is the stand-out moments like that that make up for the weaknesses in this feel-good show.
"Been So Long" is on at the Young Vic until 15th July, at the Latitude Festival on 17th and 18th July and at the Edinburgh Festival from 7th to 30th August. The show runs for an hour and 45 minutes with no interval.
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti