Photo credit: Arinzé Kene (Photo by Craig Sugden)

'Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical' review - Arinzé Kene shines as the reggae superstar

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

How to demystify the icon that is Bob Marley, to separate the man from the mantles placed upon him: reggae superstar, Black hero, poetic advocate of peace and love, ganja-smoking Rasta inspiration, or cool dude splashed across T-shirts and posters in student halls? It's a struggle that this intermittently powerful new show both tackles head on and embodies in its own flawed form.

Lee Hall's book is at its weakest when it follows the jukebox bio-musical model, racing breathlessly through Marley's life - from an impoverished Jamaican childhood, separated from his mother and shunned by his white father, to global superstardom - and giving us tonal whiplash along the way, particularly when jumping straight from a dire medical diagnosis to an upbeat singalong. It also fumbles some key events, like an attempted assassination. I would definitely advise reading the programme, which adds much-needed context - particularly in explaining the teachings of Marley's Rastafari faith and how his time in London shaped him as an artist.

But that does feel like a crutch, as does the use of archive video to elucidate the plot, such as Marley's ambivalent role in Jamaican politics, or how the CIA considered him a dangerous potential unifier: a Black Messiah. Yet there's fascinating material here, particularly the challenging notion that Marley's success was in large part due to the ardent adoption of his music by white fans - also, of course, the make-up of the average West End audience.

Frustratingly, though, the show doesn't really commit to any one idea long enough to get under the skin of it. The closest it comes is in the second half, when everything else falls away to allow Arinzé Kene, as Marley, to speak directly to us, condemning colonisation, slavery, and the continued oppression of Black people, before launching into a passionate rendition of "Redemption Song." It draws cries and shouts from the audience, some of whom sing along - which I normally abhor, but feels absolutely right here. It truly shows how Marley the prophet shared his gospel via music, and it's thrillingly theatrical.

It's also a rare quiet moment in Clint Dyer's otherwise busy production. Though booming bass fuels the ska performances, the sound balance makes the action hard to follow. The magnetic Kene sings divinely, honouring Marley's utterly distinctive sound. But, since we rarely get inside his head, those great songs don't have much dramatic heft. Nor does the largely passive Marley, defined here by his drifting inaction, really drive the story, and a climactic link between him and contemporary protest movements feels unearned.

In fact, the strongest musical moments belong to two long-suffering women; the show doesn't shy away from Marley's serial adultery and parental indifference, contrasting his preaching about love with his flawed demonstration of it. Gabrielle Brooks, as wife Rita, injects all of her fury, hurt and despair into "No Woman, No Cry," while Shanay Holmes, as his beauty queen lover Cindy Breakspeare, lambasts Marley in electrifying fashion with "Waiting In Vain." There's also good support from Nate Simpson as a younger Bob, and Daniel Bailey as a livewire Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Designer Chloe Lamford's stacks of speakers and amps are visually arresting, however they limit the playing space and crowd out Tal Yarden's projections. But Charles Balfour's bold lighting punctuates the action effectively, as do Lisa Duncan's vibrant period costumes and Shelley Maxwell's choreography - from languorous hip rolls to the sharply expressive ensemble number "Exodus". The band, under Sean Green, provides rhythmic, reverberating reggae.

The show is bookended by Marley's mother stressing that, with the middle name Nesta, he is a "messenger," but it never really decides what message to convey. It works best when it stops trying and simply lets us - via a talented cast - find it for ourselves in Marley's indelible music.

Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical is at the Lyric Theatre. Book Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Arinzé Kene (Photo by Craig Sugden)

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