Funk-soul musical “Been So Long” began life under the same title as an acclaimed piece of new writing for the Royal Court in 1998. Writer-director Che Walker should have left well enough alone. What apparently came across as a gritty slice of London-based life and love when staged as a straight play in a studio theater has now become an aimless, baggy and context-free wander through a series of urban cliches that’s particularly disturbing in its endorsement of stereotypical depictions of black women.
The lack of prevailing tone and mood is a massive problem. The flexibility of the Young Vic’s mainstage is yet again on display in designer Dick Bird’s refit: The space has been transformed into a cabaret, with the front rows of seating replaced by tables, and auds looking onto a long — very long — playing area representing the Arizona nightclub. The four-man band and three voluptuous black female backup singers (stereotype No. 1) are visible on tiers.
The scene is set for entertainment and festivity, but the first moments of action — lonely barman Barney (Omar Lyefook) singing dolefully about how “love don’t drink here no more” — suggest a history of liveliness in the place we are clearly meant to feel nostalgic about, but are given no access to.
An important figure on the U.K. soul music scene in the 1990s, Lyefook has a magnificent voice (as does every member of the cast), but songs by Arthur Darvill, credible enough as popular music, are inadequately distinctive or memorable as a musical theater score. (Darvill’s songs were also the weak link in “The Frontline,” Walker’s 2008 play for London’s Globe Theater, which is being revived this year.)
Script presents us with a series of history-less characters, all of whom are preoccupied by matters of the heart and groin: Barney is in unrequited love with Simone (Cat Simmons), the heroic single mother (stereotype No. 2) of a disabled child. Yvonne (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) is a hot ‘n’ horny coochie-mama (“wanna find a man/wanna grind a man/gonna hound a man/gonna pound a man” — stereotype No. 3). Simone hooks up with Raymond (Arinze Kene), who is gorgeous and great in bed but feckless (lest stereotypes of black male identity be neglected).
Gil (Harry Hepple) is a crazed, tracksuit-wearing white guy with an improbably soulful voice. His is the most interesting character because it doesn’t quite map onto existing types; but because his ethnicity is not mentioned it’s unclear if Walker is attempting a commentary about the fetishization of black culture by white youths.
Action takes place on two nights, a week apart, as the characters wander through the bar singing about and enacting their desires. But because there is no narration or other contextualization of where and when we are, it’s difficult to engage in or care about the stories. The vast stage area feels chronically underpopulated, and Walker’s attempts to fill the space by having intimate conversations conducted from a long distance compounds this and other problems.
From the expensive look of the set and the high-end touring plans following the Young Vic run (two days at the uber-trendy Latitude Festival and three weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe’s top new-writing venue, the Traverse), producers had great initial faith in this material. Perhaps too much creative responsibility has been vested in Walker alone as writer, lyricist and director, but something went terminally wrong along the way.