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 The front rows have been replaced by tables and chairs, cabaret-style.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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world