THE HEART STILL FEELS THE BEAT
Everything Bob Marley sings lifts the heart, instructing it to rise and triumph and unite in joy: lively-up yourself! Let’s get together and feel all right! Emancipate yourself from mental slavery! No need to be Jamaican, or black, or Rastafarian: just human. Buying a ticket on the first day for this musical of his short life, I hoped for that feeling from this musical (Lee Hall wrote the book, always a good sign). I pretty much, got it.
The stage is a castle of crates and amps and speakers; up front I was next to a DJ booth where a cheeky Jacade Simpson – even before the start – charms the nearest blonde (“You come wit’ somebody?”). Then in the rackety world of 1950’s Jamaica , little Robert Nesta Marley loses his often-absent father and goes to live with grandmother, meets Neville (who was to become Bunny Wailer), moves to Trenchtown, and jams with his mates, all rude-boy pop and ska. But slows it down, edges into reggae, spouts joyful words, gets jammin’ with the Wailers in every dance hall and fighting to get paid.
Arinzé Kene is all Bob, wonderfully in the spirit and musically perfect; when he meets Rita , a defiantly independent lady whose vigour and musicality is given everything we need by a magnificent Gabrielle Brooks, before she succumbs to that single bed in a glorious “Is it love?” duet. Even so, she tells Bob with his Syrian-Jewish streak of heritage, he isn’t black enough. Jacade Simpson’s Bunny, third of the central trio, is a joy too, as is the leapingly energetic ensemble.
So to England on tour – great headline projections on the ever-changing wooden crates of the set, and a splendid moment of disgust at the weather (in Leicester) and decision to go home. The Wailers split up, leave him. On goes Bob. tragically briefly, trying to evade political attempts to enrol him, surviving a shooting, triumphant musically and less so domestically in his multiple babyfather-life .
This tendency alienates both Miss Jamaica Cindy Breakspeare (Shanay Holmes) and Rita. Who, in a stunning musical coup de theatre, is the one who sings No Woman No Cry, with those tender memories of early, broke, happy days in the ‘government yard” (I met her once, proud moment, she cherishes that line). It is very beautiful. Finally Kene sings Redemption Song, alone on the jutting front arm of the stage, and there is proper awe in the room, feeling that once again it is happening. This is followed, naturally, by a lot of leaping up and down . Every little thing’s gonna be all right so get up, stand up, give it an ovation.
If the show has a fault, it is that the first half skates too fast over events and conversations, in favour of one too many big numbers: a bit too jukebox. But the second is magnificent. In his diagnosis and rising sense of doom, and in that extraordinary duet with Rita, Arinzé Kene is marvellously physically expressive, and in the lasts great song, heroic. It is a huge affirmation of heart and humanity, and it’ll be hard to stop me buying another ticket.
box office www.nimaxtheatres.com to 3 April