Dark times at a rundown disco are the setting for Been So Long, a musical with a heartbeat of soul and Motown.
The scene is a drama school in Hackney. Che Walker is taking his first acting class of the term. As the students settle down, he notices Omar walking in a few minutes late. That's Omar, the pioneer of British neo soul who scored a top 20 hit in 1991 with There's Nothing Like This, went on to release six albums and to collaborate with everyone from Angie Stone to Stevie Wonder.
"It's quite a big building so I thought he was obviously lost, looking for a recording studio or something," says Walker, a long-time soul fan. "But he came, sat down and said, 'Sorry I'm late.' I'm such a fan of Omar and here I was teaching him."
Initially star-struck, Walker came to realise that Omar, a classically trained musician, was approaching the art of acting with exactly the same degree of seriousness with which he approached his music. It seemed like fate, therefore, that Walker was in the process of turning his debut play, Been So Long, first seen at London's Royal Court in 1998, into a musical, and that he wanted a soundtrack inspired by the very soul, reggae and Motown sounds at which the singer excelled. With a score written by another former student, Arthur Darvill, Been So Long the musical would be the perfect vehicle for Omar to make his acting debut.
"Omar had to audition and we did consider some other people who were a lot more experienced, but there was something about him we just really liked," says Walker, son of celebrated Glasgow Citizens actor Ann Mitchell. "He keeps it so real that it reminds some of the experienced actors that you don't have to be technical, you just have to be truthful. He's going to be a fantastic actor. He just gets better every night – and he's such an extraordinary singer. It taps us into the underrated heritage of British soul artists."
It means that far from being cheap celebrity casting, the presence of a bona fide soul singer adds an extra layer of authenticity to the show. Set in an all-but-deserted nightclub about to close down for good, Been So Long tells a slice-of-urban-life tale about a group of alienated young people looking for love. Omar plays Barney the barman, fated to be an observer and never a participant in his customers' affairs. He looks on as Arinze Kene's charismatic Raymond, like a reluctant Don Juan, makes women lose control and men turn violent with jealousy.
The original play was a runner up for the John Whiting Award and went on to be produced in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand. Most writers would be content with that level of success, but Walker wanted more. He'd always thought of it as a play with potential to be a musical and, despite his subsequent successes with plays at London's Globe and Hampstead Theatre, he regarded it as unfinished business. "I always wanted it to be a musical," he says. "When I first wrote it I thought these characters should sing. It became a play and I'm incredibly proud of it, but it always nagged me that I hadn't finished it."
Having been given the go-ahead by the English Touring Company, he faced the difficult challenge of cutting the script to allow room for the songs and, as director, making the even more difficult call to remove a favourite song because it was slowing down the show. He was also careful to hold on to what was good about the play in the first place. "We've really worked hard on keeping the complexity of the characters," he says. "There's a lot of darkness in the story as well as being extremely funny, so it’s not your typical musical fare."
For all the stress, however, he has loved the process. "I don’t know what I'll write next but this is definitely not my last musical," he says. "There's something about the form that's so intoxicating. A good musical hits people like no other form. You need such a scale of emotion to justify bursting into song. I'm definitely not done with it."
Been So Long, Traverse Theatre, 7-30 August (not 10, 17, 24), from £5 times vary
If you like this, try Hooked at the Musical Theatre, 7-30 August (not 11, 17, 24)