Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Harry Hepple, Arinze Kene, Omar Lyefook, Cat Simmons
Che Walker follows up his joyously noisy The Frontline – the first truly modern play to be staged by the Globe and one that really grasped how to make contemporary stories seem at home in that setting with another urban hymn, a musical re-think of his 1998 play Been So Long.
Collaborating with Arthur Darvill, who also supplied the music for The Frontline, Walker has transformed the play originally staged at the Royal Court into a quivering, shimmering London musical replete with the sounds of the city.
It may be subtle as a sledgehammer, but it’s a funky, vibrant, embracive thing with a filthy mouth, a poet’s tongue and a bawdy sense of humour.
The Arizona Bar is dying. The punters have all migrated over the road to Jake’s Bar and, as the bartender, Barney, sadly admits, ‘love don’t drink here anymore.’ The closing notices are up and the Arizona will soon have to shut its doors forever.
Into the empty Arizona Bar strides Gil, a skinny white boy on a mission. He’s out to kill Raymond LeGendre because Raymond stole his woman back in ’06 and Gil still has to settle that score. Best friends Simone and Yvonne, on the other hand, just want to have a good time and maybe find themselves a man for the night.
Simone’s been through a rough time. Her ex, her baby’s father, treated her badly and left her raw and hurt. She’s afraid to let another man get close to her and risk that happening again. Could the smooth-tongued Raymond be the one to show her that all men aren’t as bad as her ex? Or is he just another waster with a woman in Wilsden and a reputation to think about?
Walker’s plot is pretty slim, but this matters not. For Been So Long is a seductive piece of theatre, one that’s inclined to skip the preliminaries and slide you its phone number across the bar. It isn’t shy, that’s for certain. From the moment that Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s Yvonne pounds down the steps, in a canary yellow ribbon of a dress with scarlet satin stilettos, hollering about her need for ‘a fella’ and describing in great detail her wind-lashed sexual fantasies, the tone is set.
While some of the songs definitely fall into the filler category, for the most part the music played live by a band, including Darvill, perched above the stage drives the show. The soundtrack is funky and soulful: a musical language that fits this particular world and that speaks eloquently to its audience. The cast are all rich-voiced and at ease with the constant slips into song, reaching for their hand-held mics whenever the next number begins (which leads to a wonderful moment when Harry Hepple’s Gil, sitting astride Raymond with a knife in his hand, fishes into his pocket for a microphone in order to break into a ballad).
The structure of the production leaves little room for nuanced character development. Has Raymond’s time in prison mellowed him and made him a different man as he claims? It’s never clear but in the end this ambiguity serves the story.
The small cast make a big impact. Omar Lyefook is suitably muted as bartender Barney, forever polishing glasses and pouring drinks, while sitting on a soul-sized passion for Simone. Agyei-Ampadu is both terrifying and glorious as Yvonne and Cat Simmons is convincingly conflicted as Simone.
While it’s possible to argue that at times Been So Long is crude and messy or that it’s all mouth and tight trousers and nothing in between, that would be to miss the point. The audience seemed utterly wrapped up in the ‘will she/won’t she/should she?’ plot and the atmosphere in the Young Vic auditorium was buzzing.