Che Walker wrote the first new play for Shakespeare’s Globe, The Frontline, a vivid Jonsonian satire of Camden Town types and moves that was a complex advance on this early play, his first “full-length” ninety-minute piece seen in the Royal Court upstairs studio in 1998.
This boldly presented new musical version at the Young Vic keeps exactly to the same five characters in a losers’ bar on the point of closure but has inflated the scale - firstly, with a splendid catalogue of funk, rap and blues songs by Arthur Darvill that pumps up the operatic quota of longing and desperation; and secondly, with a great glossy bar room design by Dick Bird that still doesn’t sacrifice the bleak tawdriness of the original.
The barman Barney – played in the first version by a ferrety, dilapidated Karl Johnson, now by soul singer Omar Lyefook with a stylized Medusa top-knotted Rasta hair-do that looks like a Catholic priest’s biretta after a night on the tiles – is first visited by Harry Hepple’s whingeing white rapper Gil, whose girl had been stolen by babe magnet Raymond LeGendre.
Then the babes, not Gil’s, hit the dull spot, belched out from the groovy venue over the road: they burst through the Arizona doors on the look out for spills and thrills. Yvonne (the magnificently bestial Naana Agyei-Ampadu) is on the hunt for sexual fulfillment, and boy does she have an appetite, whereas Simone (Cat Simmons) is a single mother with more pressing domestic concerns over the bad behaviour of her child’s father.
Raymond himself – given a smooth athletic sheen by Arinze Kene – is not far behind, and the play develops as a series of encounters, artfully manipulated, that never quite shake out. En route to a dramatic semi-colon of a finale, Gil sings a rap rock aria holding a scimitar to Ray’s throat, Ray chases Simone down the street and Barney, holding a flame for Simone himself, starts polishing glasses for the last round.
Darvill himself leads a great four-piece band on the upper level, and on the other side of the staircase, three soul divas shimmy in the half-light with tremendous vocal backing. The show’s not perfect, but it’s rough, raw and hugely enjoyable, and Walker’s own production is sassy and brave.