Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical review: A little off the beat

A report by Clive Davis for The Times of London.

★★★☆☆

You can never tell what will make a hit musical. Jersey Boys, which recently returned to the West End, has a script so clunky it might have been jotted down just before the curtain went up. And yet the show seems to be unstoppable.

So the flaws in this celebration of Jamaica’s greatest musical export may not prove fatal. As someone who grew up on Bob Marley’s music, I want this show to succeed. And in the Nigerian-born Arinzé Kene, it gives us a shaman-cum-entertainer who is blessed with a soulful voice (no matter that he’s much more bulked-up than the bird-like leader of the Wailers).

The best of the songs are delivered with a suitably gritty beat by a band anchored by Frank Tontoh, the drummer. No Woman, No Cry becomes a vehicle for Marley’s long-suffering other half, Rita, as she looks back on the days when the man she loved lived a simpler life free of the temptations of superstardom. Other songs are shoehorned into the story (Could You Be Loved becomes a commentary on Marley’s unsettled childhood.)

Lee Hall’s book is oddly disjointed too. Marley’s life was so swathed in mythology, Rasta speechifying and clouds of ganja that it was always going to be hard to get a purchase on the man himself. Even so, Lee gives us a disconcertingly brisk chronicle. One minute, our hero is skulking on a pavement on a cold night in the Midlands, worrying that the big break is never going to come, the next he is the voice of the Third World. Fellow musicians, including Peter Tosh, flit in and out, and even that Harrow-educated impresario Chris Blackwell, the brains behind Island Records, seems a mere bystander.

If the script is hectic, Clint Dyer’s direction lacks momentum. There are too many lulls and moments when the actors look marooned on Chloe Lamford’s set, which uses blocks of sound system speakers to evoke the sprawl of Kingston and London. Shelley Maxwell’s choreography only occasionally catches fire, as on the brooding version of Exodus that opens the second act.

In the end, it’s the women who help to lift the show. Gabrielle Brooks gives us a stoic Rita who refuses to be shoved into the background, while Shanay Holmes impresses in the skeletal role of the singer’s beauty queen lover, Cindy Breakspeare. The shadows close in as a weakened Marley drifts towards his final days (he was only 36 when he succumbed to cancer), but the jaunty rhythms of One Love and the defiant title song keep darkness at bay.

To April 3, getupstandupthemusical.com

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