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.