It all starts in a run-down pub in North London. Simone is reluctantly out for drinks with her best mate Yvonne, and the pair share a free bottle of prosecco (yes, probably in part to blame for the pub’s dwindling funds) courtesy of the very nice landlord. In walks Mr. Hot Stuff, otherwise known as Raymond, who swiftly catches both women’s eyes. He only has eyes for Simone, though, and smiles at her coyly from the bar.
Yvonne, being the dutiful best friend that she is, remains very chill about it (despite being the one to approach and proposition him). She takes her cue to leave, informs him that Simone’s favourite game is draughts and retreats to another bar, taking the free bottle of prosecco with her.
Sweet, isn’t it? A meet-cute for the boozy board game fans. And on this level alone, Been So Long is the Camden-based rom-com you didn’t know you needed in your life. Throw in a few songs, some impromptu dance numbers and a slightly confusing plot line about Gil, a wayward young man driven out of his mind by a lost love, and you’ve got Netflix’s newest musical. It’s a bit of a wild ride.
Michaela Coel plays Simone, a single mother who gave up on love long ago. When Yvonne (Ronke Adekoluejo) initially suggests a night out for the two of them, Simone announces “If I want a transcending experience, I will go to church”. She doesn’t really drink, rarely strays from the routine of pointedly healthy meals and devotes every waking action to the care and protection of her primary school age daughter. Yvonne kindly reminds her that it's all well and good, but “you need to get your piece wet” and, alas, they make it to the pub.
Needless to say, it's very cheesy but in a charming way that'll keep you invested all the way into the musical's kebab shop finale. Rather straightforwardly however, this is a story about love, life and hardship. If you look past the bright lights and the quirky show tunes you'll find heart-wrenching sincerity in the film's key characters.
Over their drinks and draughts, Simone learns that Raymond (Arinzé Kene) has just gotten out of prison for a non-violent crime that he’s pretty elusive about, and they joke about his ankle monitor being a hot new accessory. He lives with his mum, has just started a job as a bin collector and is desperately trying to rebuild his life. He falls hard for Simone after their steamy first night together (she does indeed get her piece wet) and Simone develops feeling for him too, but she stifles them to protect her own heart first which is where the middle act's drama gets going.
What's most interesting about the whole thing is that you're not always on Simone's side. You feel like you understand her, you empathise with her and you root for her, but when she repeatedly bails on Raymond, you raise an eyebrow. When she falls out with Yvonne, you shake your head, not in disbelief, but in frustration at how you would've handled it differently. Contrary to the bouncy, flouncy female love interests of most rom-coms, Simone isn't here for you, Raymond or anyone to fall for her. She's here for herself and her daughter Mandy and the rest (namely, romance) is secondary. "Who is it against the world?", she asks Mandy mid way through doing her hair for school. "Me and you", Mandy replies obediently, knowing that this won't be the last time she and her mum perform their regular bit.
Yvonne's character is irresistibly charismatic, on the other hand. She's delightfully mouthy and really, really crude, but these traits aren't the be all and end all of what we come to learn about her. She loves sex, she probably talks about sex the most out of the entire cast, but her narrative isn't remotely about her being a hyper-sexualised antidote to Simone's comparatively prude persona – her story is also one of hope, happiness and ultimately survival. It's a bit of a theme.
Been So Long is a heartfelt, tragic, messy, ridiculous ride. Scratch beneath the neon glare and a couple of untimely sing-alongs and you've got a film that'll surprise you by how well it captures not only the stress of getting by in life, but the optimism of romance that we all secretly want a little piece of.
Been So Long is on Netflix now