Been So Long, Young Vic, London
The Mountaintop, Theatre 503, Battersea, London
The Beautiful Journey, South Yard, Naval Dockyard, Plymouth

A Royal Court drama has been turned into a swaggering, hip musical in which lovelorn lowlifers break into torch songs when you least expect it

It's 11 years since the Royal Court premiere of Been So Long, Che Walker's rollicking play set in a Camden bar where comic losers, studs and mouthy ladettes cross paths – variously cruising for a bruising, a leg-over or more romantic liaisons.

The current Been So Long has been a long time coming, but now, in an inspired move, that straight drama has been turned into an updated, hip and humorous musical: a boisterous hit for the Young Vic (co-producing with English Touring Theatre).

Walker's self-directed production – with its predominantly black cast, including the soul star Omar – endows the genre with street cred. Songwriter Arthur Darvill's numbers range through blues, funk, reggae and hip-hop, all performed with soaring brio, aplomb and wit. The barman (Omar) and his lovelorn customers reach tongue in cheek for large handheld microphones – stowed in niches in the set – whenever they feel a torch song coming on.

Visually, too, this staging has a sleek intimacy. The bar (designed by Dick Bird) is a darkly gleaming basement dive, with glinting bottles and a staircase that spills, curvaceously, down into the audience. The front rows have been replaced by tables and chairs, cabaret-style.

Up above, in the musicians' gallery, Darvill and his band (bass guitar, drums and keys) perch with a trio of voluptuous backing vocalists. Down below, Naana Agyei-Ampadu struts her stuff as the outrageously brassy Yvonne, farcically tussling with Harry Hepple's scaggy Gil. Meanwhile, Cat Simmons's wary Simone falls for Arinze Kene's super-hunky, surprisingly tender Raymond.

Walker joyfully captures the ballsy swagger of these lowlifers, with the women more than a match for the men. Their lingo is flamboyantly quirky as well, fusing contemporary slang with flourishes of arcane eloquence.

Been Too Long could be faster paced at its start and finish, where it becomes slushy. There are flat patches. Nonetheless, this is a neat chamber piece compared with Walker's sprawling Camden epic, The Frontline. And it adds to the wave of productions currently enlivening the London stage with terrific, leading black performers.

That wave continues with Theatre 503's outstanding fringe premiere of The Mountaintop, starring David Harewood. In this historical-fantastical two-hander by American newcomer Katori Hall, it's the night before Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. Harewood's MLK is holed up in a dingy Memphis motel when a young black chambermaid knocks at his door. She brings the coffee which he ordered, and has a bunch of surprises up her sleeve.

Hall combines a teasing seduction with a fierce political debate about how much King's "bourgeois" non-violent protests are going to achieve. The plot twists are bold too, as the maid, Lorraine Burroughs's Camae, starts to look suspiciously like an FBI agent, then, surreally, like an angel.

This playwright certainly doesn't fight shy of criticising the sainted civil rights leader, depicting him as a passionate reformer but also wearily embittered, and a casual womaniser on the side.

Yet he's a dramatically richer character for that. Pacing around his pokey suite, Harewood manages to seem both larger than life – bursting with charisma – and humorously real. The closely observed detailing is a joy, right down to his sniffing his rank socks.

When alone and avidly running through his big speech about America's aggressive arrogance, Harewood splendidly captures the swelling vibrato of the old-style preacher man. By contrast, he has a lovely laughing warmth when he relaxes with Camae. Burroughs is superb, in turn: mercurially innocent and sassy.

Some of the play's transitions are strained, especially when Camae dresses up in King's jacket and shoes to launch into her own rhetorical tirade. The allusions to President Obama –the dream-fulfilling orator to come – are also obtrusive. All in all, though, this is an exhilarating debut, and director James Dacre is another name to watch. What about a West End transfer to, say, one of the Young Vic's studio spaces?

Lastly, the environment has been shot to hell by climate change in The Beautiful Journey, a futuristic folktale devised by Wildworks, with support from Plymouth's adventurous Theatre Royal. I caught up with Bill Mitchell's roving troupe down at the city's old naval dockyard.

Wildworks creates wonderful raggle-taggle amphitheatres out of recycled junk and, for this al fresco promenade piece, they've created a shanty town-cum-cabaret club on the wharf, with multi-storey scaffolding and chintz curtains, plastic-bottle chandeliers and windmills made from tea trays.

The trouble is the script is far less brilliant, cobbled together from garbled Greek legends. The cabaret-queen Kalypso and the weather-forecasting witch Kassandra are rival sisters who eventually let a beached sailor and girl-heroine row away to seek a land where some bees have survived.

The acting is ropey and whole chunks are inaudible. Still, the gypsy band provides vibrant compensation, and Kassandra's aerial swoop is spectacular, swinging from a crane that flies her over a gigantic shipbuilding shed to gaze out to sea.

'Been So Long', Young Vic (020-7922 2922) to 15 Jul, then the Latitude Festival, Southwold (01603 660352) 16 to 19 Jul; 'The Mountaintop' (020-7978 7040) to 4 Jul; 'The Beautiful Journey' transfers to Oceana, Wallsend (0191-454 1234) 28 Jul-8 Aug

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015