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REVIEW: BEEN SO LONG

 

By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

 

Monday, July 27, 2009.

 

Ché Walker is arguably the literary laureate of Black London, but several songs into this rendition of his famous musical drama, it becomes clear that the story line is pretty thin.  We learn that the man-suspicious Simone (powerfully lunged Cat Simmons) lusts for Raymond (Arinze Kene), who has already rebuffed her friend Yvonne (Gemma Knight-Jones). 

 

On the sidelines, Barney (Omar Lyefook) pines for his former lover Simone, whilst counselling the love-struck, revenge seeking Gill (played by Harry Hepple). Even amongst the low-life characters on display, thug-love has its tender moments.

 

As the leading lady Naana Agyei-Ampadu is absent, Gemma Knight Jones steps in to save the day as Jennifer. As one of the three regular backing singers, she already knows this story, which centres on the complications of love and lust; a piece first written over a decade ago as a straight dramatic piece. Now Walker's gritty, realistic ear-to-the-ground show is revived in a joint venture between the Young Vic and the English Touring Theatre. That combination turns this piece into a play with songs. 

 

Enters the Young Vic’s excellent acoustics of Paul Arditti; here, we have a well-drilled  5-piece band with Arthur Darvill’s catchy, lyrics and music pushing the narrative forward and sprinkling the story with a few hilarious one-liners.

 

The reggae, soul, jazz and blues numbers may have stood out, but each performer also displays superb vocal range. But Walkers’ slang-filled dialogue - in between songs - has too few flashes of inspiration to flesh out the whole play.

 

The audience’s attention is also diverted  by The Young Vic’s relaxed setting; cocktail tables bringing theatre-goers up close and personal to Dick Bird’s spectacular set. 

 

On two levels - with space for musicians and backing singers - between which a grand staircase descends to the plush bar area; this stage is far too big for such a small story. And the wide-open spaces are not helped by Bonnie Oddie’s listless choreography.

 

What saves this piece is the multi-talented 5-person cast. Even though Soul star Omar seems more comfortable when singing, he does bring necessary depth to a decidedly one-dimensional character. And the tall dark handsome and well-sculptured Arinze Kene looks well suited to his womanising role. 

 

But it’s Harry Hepple as the manic and psychopathic Gil who steals the show. Not only can this man act, he sings and even throws in a few raps. He plays his part well with good humour, passion and irony.

 

Unfortunately, these are emotions mostly absent from his co-stars; they shouted at one another across the wide expanse of the stage, when sensitivity is what is required. Perhaps, somebody should tell them that this is supposed to be an intimate chamber piece.  

 

The audience may have rose to its feet at the end of the play, but the clapping seems more appropriate for the ‘Billie Jean’ tribute to Michael Jackson than this patchy rendition of Been So Long. 

 

Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

 

Main Picture: Harry Hepple as Gil and Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Yvonne. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

 

Been So Long

Young Vic Theatre

27 June 2009

Written and Directed By Ché Walker

Music By Arthur Darvill

Continues at Traverse Theatre - Edinburgh
07 August 2009 to 30 August 2009

 

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