Been So Long (Young Vic Theatre 26/6/09) 28 June 2009

Through various channels I received a couple of free tickets to see 'Been So Long' at the Young Vic Theatre. Refered to as a musical about " Romance, rage, revenge and rare groove..." I was looking forward to it. So, what did I think? It's hard to say it, but I despised it. I know that can sound harsh, and it is only a personal opinion, but it was seriously one of the most disappointing shows I have seen in quite a while.

Allow me to separate out a few things. Overall, the performers were good, the voices magnificent, the set was interesting and the band with two backup singers were storming. What was missing was plot, memorable songs (with the exception of 'Girls Night Out'), songs that reveal character, staging, direction, choreography and any depth of character. That's an extensive list.

I didn't come to 'Been So Long' with any expectations other than some good reviews that I skimmed through, an online video shot during rehearsals of the song 'Girls Night Out' and that Omar 'There's Nothing Like This' was in it. A work colleague had seen it the week before and her report was that it was enjoyable and short. All in all it didn't seem I had much to lose. I was wrong.

Here's the all you need to know about the show. There's a London bar called Arizona that's closing down due to lack of business. It seems the bar across the road - Jake's - is booming, leaving the Arizona in its wake. There's the owner/bartender played by Omar, two of the female regulars, a male regular and another male who is looking for the man who stole his girlfriend. A few of the characters are somewhat defined. One of the female regulars is highly sexed and a bit of a ball buster, the male regular is the hunky muscled good looking womaniser, and the jilted lover is an almost geeky Caucasian 'lad'. That's the beginning and the end of the characterisations. The story revolves around their interactions, not much comes of it, there are a few revelations but by the time they came, I couldn't care less.

The dialogue seems to be built around setups for witty asides and lead-ins for songs. Two of the characters, one male and one female, have extended monologues about sex, very detailed, very graphic, and performed as if they were in a performance poetry competition. I think it was intended to be a 'real' depiction of how people can speak but it fell flat and the comedy shock value was over after the first minute yet it continued for what seemed like an eternity and didn't add anything to the proceedings. What was also strange was that the dialogue was continually fluctuating between 'street' and 'public school' for no apparent reason. In my opinion, dialogue should reflect and reveal character and especially shouldn't be random unless the randomness 'is' the personality . My favourite random moment came at the end, ask yourself this - your bar is closing for good, everything's been leading up to this, how would you spend the momentous occasion? Restocking the wine? Right before locking the doors for the last time? That's what happens here. Who thought that made sense?

And don't get me started on the direction. The production couldn't decide whether it was a straight play or a musical, I would say more of a play with music (I believe I read somewhere that it was once a straight play). I use the term 'play' very loosely. You could see the songs coming a mile off, and to make sure we saw them when they arrived, all action, movement and 'storyline' would come to screeching halt. What they were singing about was lost to me a few bars in. On every song. I think they were singing about the scene that lead to the song, but as it seemed to be reiterating what was just said, I lost focus. And there were so many songs, this 90 minute show seemed to have more songs than a 2 1/2 hour sung-through show.

I would like to say something positive about performances. I didn't buy a programme or playtext (God forbid) so I'm at a bit of a loss concerning character names, apologies. The show went up late and right before the start the director/writer Che Walker came onstage to announce that one of the two women in the production had a terrible chest infection. He went on to announce who would be playing the role, that she would be on book but it wouldn't diminish our enjoyment. I wish I could remember her name, but she was excellent! Especially considering she was on book with little time to prepare. The biggest laughs and I have to say the only person who seemed to find the human beneath the shallow veneer, was Harry Hepple who played the jilted lad. He had some good moments in the beginning and his voice is amazing but at the end, due to the flimsy book, he had nowhere to go and the initial spark just fizzled. Not his fault. Shame.

I am shocked at the great reviews 'Been So Long' received and it's fair to say that from what I saw the audience was loving it. The Young Vic has always been at the forefront in bringing in new and diverse audiences and that was still the case with this particular audience. One can't help but think that this was supposed to be one of the shows that would give them street cred, bring in those who wouldn't normally go to the theatre. But, if I were in that category, I don't think i would be going back. See it and let me know if you feel the same.

Hair - Conceptual Bliss 20 June 2009

A friend of mine saw the Broadway revival of Hair yesterday. It's one of my favourite shows so I emailed her for her update - I'd seen it and wanted to know what she thought.

Hair is a show I discovered in a backwards way, much like many others who remember the music from their youth and childhood in the 70's.

Long before I understood or was even aware of what a Broadway show was, I fell in love with the songs - not the score but the hit songs, not from the original cast album but from three hit cover versions, all of which I still love. The Fifth Dimension did 'Aquarius / Let The Sun Shine In', Three Dog Night did 'Easy To Be Hard' and Oliver (what ever happened to him /them) did 'Good Morning Starshine' - all staples on American radio during the 70's. As I got older and became more interested in theatre and discovered the show that the songs came from. But to be honest, Hair seemed more like a concept than a stage show. I never really understood, from what I read, exactly what Hair was all about, or if there was indeed any sort of storyline. It was never described in that way, the descriptions always seemed to be about hippies or it being a revolutionary groundbreaking show with nudity and hit songs.

Then in 1979 came the Milos Foreman film. This was my first proper introduction to all the songs in the show. I became obsessed with it for a while. I had the film soundtrack on heavy rotation and dismissed the Broadway cast album for its rawness of sound and delivery. It sounded small and insignificant to my young ears, unlike the full 'produced' movie soundtrack which was very slick. This lead me to further investigate the original production but again I couldn't make heads or tails of any original plot or storyline although there was an occasional mention that it was changed for the movie so I figured there had to be one.

Fast forward to London in the early 00's. The tiny well respected Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London was producing a new revival. It had been a while since there was a proper London revival of Hair. Adding to that we were post 9/11 in a mostly unpopular war, there was 'young director to watch' Daniel Kramer at the helm and they were updating it to present day. Although those facts were interesting, none really mattered as I was only interested in seeing Hair with its original storyline.

I loved the production. There were only two rows stretched out the length of the space, a very small band tucked off to one end of the playing space, excellent performances and singing and one of the most powerful endings I have ever experienced in theatre. What was different was the Hud, traditionally played by an African American male, was played as an Afro Caribbean woman without loosing any of the characters gruff traits and there was a strong gay element in many of the scenes and characters. Dialogue was obviously altered to make it relevant as well as the general look of the show. The nudity remained and being in such close proximity to the actors made me think that this must of been what it felt like to see the original production - these days nudity doesn't have the same power to shock as it once had.

Because it had the three news worthy aspects, this production had a fair amount of press and interviews. From an interview with Daniel Kramer I discovered that James Rado, one of the composers and the original Claude, was involved with the production in some way. I happened to know a few people involved with the show, one who was in it and one involved on the creative side, and after the performance I got a bit more information about Rado's involvement. He was indeed involved, but more in a creative approval sense. I also found out that although he had given his approval, he liked the show but didn't seem to love it. There were rumours of the production transferring to the West End, and I know through one of my sources that they were even looking for funding and reimagining the sets and costumes for a larger space. I also heard that there was a possibility that James Rado was not on board with this transfer, I seem to remember that he was more partial to Hair remaining in the 60's. I have to say that at the time, I put that preference down to someone who was unable to move forward and as a result we would only see 'museum piece' productions of Hair in the future. This is probably the main reason it never happened. Just my feeling. Anyway, it was sad - I was gearing up to be a Hair groupie!

Fast forward. We now live an internet lead world where all sorts of information is just a Google search away. All sorts of Hair information is out there, from personal experiences of seeing the original production to recollections from those directly involved and I think I have found most of them. Through my research, I got a better sense of what the original production was all about - a collection of loosely connected scenes. I thought back to the Gate production, it had some of those original aspects but I think there was a concerted effort to 'strengthen' the storyline. The more I thought about it, there was definitely a shoehorn effect feeling about some of the scenes. I think I was just so thrilled to see a production that i brushed those negative feelings aside and just concentrated on everything else. From seeing it live, I also became a huge fan of the original cast album, learning to love the real quality of the performances. And I now have a real hard time watching the film (talk about shoehorning a storyline).

Living in London I was only vaguely aware of the semi recent Public Theater concerts and the subsequent In The Park production. I was more aware of the Park peformances from reading the message boards over at Broadway World dot com but I didn't get too into it, mainly because I wouldn't be able to see it. From what I can tell, through interviews, comments etc, it seemed to be a very transcendant experience. So, when they announced the transfer indoors, I wondered how it would be done. I saw video interviews with the Director Diane Paulus and Public Theatre Artistic Director Oskar Eustis who alluded to the exciting ways they were going to bring the experience indoors, make it a 'happening' that included the audience. Now I was excited. This seemed like the real thing and the timing was right. As my family is in the States I took the opportunity to book a ticket for the show (way in advance of first preview) that would coincide with a trip to see the folks in Philadelphia.

Hair - the experience.
As I queued waiting for the doors to open, I noticed something unusal about those waiting with me. I was on my own I had more of an opportunity to take it all in. The age range, as expected, was across the board age, but what I thought was interesting was the a lack of people there to impress - no airs and graces. Everyone was so kind and, well, peaceful. The woman in front of me asked me to save her space in the queue as she saw a friend of hers. When she returned, she immediately opened up and told me that she had only met the woman she went to greet about a week earlier at a bus stop and since then continuously ran into her in various locations throughout the city. Here she was again, at Hair. Cosmic? I think so.

At my seat (11th row centre orchestra) the woman next to me was kind and chatted with me although she was with her family. One of the members of the party next to me who I chatted with started chatting to the people in front of them. I looked around and everyone seemed to be chatty, friendly and very happy. The show started and I got chills, it was a great opening and the show sped along with song after song, hit after hit. I realised that the structure was less structured than what I saw in London.

Much has been said about the audience interaction, so I was prepared for it. I knew the people in the first row and on the aisles would play a big part, which they did. What I wasn't prepared for was the amount of time the Tribe spent in the audience, often staying and interacting for extended periods. This was fantastic. Many times there were three completely unrelated scenarios happening at the same time, Tribe member 1 in one aisle, Tribe member 2 in another aisle, both in a mini scene with an audience member, and whatever was happening on the stage. It's an amazing concept that in the wrong hands could have meant disaster - it could have been a study in pulling focus. It added immensely to the experience, it was so inclusive. The choreography was also skillfully integrated, wonderful organic movement that never crossed over to razzle dazzle. Funny thing though, there were bits of it that reminded me of what Twyla Tharpe did with the film version. I love Twyla so that wasn't a problem.

Back to my friend. Now granted, she admittedly was tired from a flight and was fighting off a cold. Basically, she thought Gavin Creel (Claude) was a star, Will Swenson (Berger) was somewhat showy, she didn't relate as much to the second act as the first ('the Vietnam parts' as she referred to them) but the audience on stage at the end along with, what I consider the greatest anthem ever, 'Let the Sun Shine In', brought tears to her eyes. It did to mine as well and I'm not afraid to admit it. I find that song very stirring and it hits a chord. I think it does with many. (Good Morning Starshine is still my favourite - gliddy glop gloopy!). Do I agree with the rest of what she said. Yes, to a degree.

Sure, there were some performances that worked better for me than others, and yes the second half has a somewhat different tone - either you relate to it or not. However, what I realised from what she said, and what prompted me to write this, was that with this production and Hair in general, the sum of its parts is greater than any of the individuals. It's about community, it's about coming together for the same cause and the disillusionment and confusion that can bring. Keeping it set in its original era is the only way to go as this production reminds us of where we came from but with its brilliant direction, keeps us firmly rooted in the now.

There has been some chatter about the strength of Hair as a musical, saying that in the traditional sense it's not good, structurally. I think that's the point. It's and experience, it's a real happening or as close as you can get whilst still being an audience member. It's an amalgamation of thoughts, ideas, ideologies, social criticism, social observation and personal awareness. It's conceptual art, and as conceptual art it's conceptual bliss.

Hair Broadway