A musical about Bob Marley was always going to be a sure-fire hit from the moment someone thought of it.
Judging by the waves of adulation welling up in the auditorium and crashing onto the stage at Birmingham Rep last night, substantial sections of the audience were willing themselves to believe Mitchell Brunings really was Bob Marley. I even wondered if he briefly believed it too; for it certainly was a completely committed portrayal of the reggae legend.
And it was brave casting. Brunings’ CV tells us he was a finalist on the Dutch version of ‘The Voice’ … but is strangely quiet on the subject of acting. Yet he walked and talked and sang just like Marley, backed by a hugely authentic and exceptionally tight nine-piece band. In their early days, The Wailers were accused of being rough, ready and indulgent – but the songs in this show are short, slick and slightly sanitised.
Kwame Kwei Arham’s script presents the middle part of Marley’s life, from the ambitious early days when he threatened a DJ who wouldn’t play his records, to the big ‘One Love’ Peace Concert in 1978. (So, no cradle and no tragically premature grave).
There is the air of an old-fashioned bio-pic about this musical. The key episodes in his life are served up in chronological order in a practical, prosaic manner. We also get explanations about the politics, culture and religion of Jamaica … and his devotion to Haile Selassie; all delivered as simply as possible. At times the dialogue was so straight forward it was comparable to a panto script. When Marley leaves for London saying, ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back’, it’s pure Dick Whittington.
He spent much of his life denying he had political interests beyond taking reggae to new heights. But even he could not ignore the post-colonial turmoil in his Jamaica and some of the most arresting scenes involve the political opponents Michael Manley (a greying Adrian Irvine) and Edward Seaga (a very pink Simeon Truby) who both try to manipulate Marley and his music to their own ends. The famous photo of all three of them clasping hands in unity is faithfully and movingly recreated. It’s a pity it didn’t last.
The show also focuses on Marley’s personal struggle. Described as being ‘too white for the black men and too black for the white men’, his desperate desire for racial identity cuts like a knife. And the dodgy bits of his private life are far from glossed over; his drugs and sexual dalliances.
Both women in his life are superbly portrayed. The frustrations of his affair with Miss World winner Cindy Breakspeare are etched on the fresh face of Cat Simmons; and the pain of being a deceived wife haunts the velvet voice of Alexia Khadime, who has such a hypnotic gracefulness on stage.
The show is populated with memorable male cameos. Delroy Brown is excellent, for example, as Marley’s Manager Don Taylor – trying to keep a world star’s feet on the ground – as is Eric Kofi Abrefa, playing Marley’s jovial spiritual mentor Pablo with increasing concern.
There is a great deal of patois humour (some of which passed this particular white boy by) and, of course, lashing of marvellous music. The choreography for the classic hits is edgy and inventive; counterbalanced by beautiful ballad treatments of songs like ‘Waiting In Vain’ and ‘Is This Love’.
It’s also good to hear tracks from that breakthrough album ‘Catch A Fire’…for once this show catches fire, there is no dousing the legend of Bob Marley.