One Love: The Bob Marley Musical review – tricky tribute to a mighty talent

Birmingham Rep
Terrific performances turn Marley’s songs into a great night out, despite the elusive singer emerging as an ambivalent character

Clearly made with love by writer and director Kwame Kwei-Armah, and received in the same spirit by a Birmingham audience, this musical inspired by the life and times of Jamaican musician Bob Marley may not be great theatre, but it’s undoubtedly a great night out.

That’s as much to do with the infectious pleasure of an audience hearing Marley’s many hits impressively delivered by Mitchell Brunings and a terrific band as it is with the show itself. In the programme, Kwei-Armah says that he wanted to avoid “sing-a-long-a-Bob”, but if that’s what he finally delivers in a clever final framing which casts us as the audience at the One Love peace concert in Kingston in 1978, during which Marley brought Jamaica’s warring political factions and gang leaders together, there is nothing to apologise for. Not since the Kinks-inspired Sunny Afternoon has there been a bio-musical that has sent an audience out of the theatre on quite such a high.

But while it’s satisfying musically, it’s often less sustaining dramatically. The first half is set against a backdrop of rising unrest in 1970s Jamaica, as prime minister Michael Manley (Adrian Irvine) aligns the country with Castro’s Cuba to the disquiet of the Americans, who support the opposition, headed by Edward Seaga (Simeon Truby). It has some tension and momentum: Marley deals with disputes within his band, embraces Rastafarianism and becomes a local hero in dangerous times. He was the target of an assassination attempt just before he was due to headline a free concert for the Jamaican people in December 1976.

The problem for Kwei-Armah – if not for Marley’s legacy – is that after being shot, Marley retreats from the fray. He holes up in London, where he behaves like a womanising whiner while letting his music do the talking as he makes the ground-breaking album Exodus. There are times when Marley is as unlikable as he is unknowable. The show loses focus and doesn’t always find a way to use the songs theatrically: Waiting in Vain/No Woman No Cry delivered as a duet between Marley and his betrayed wife, Rita (an excellent Alexia Khadime), is a rare exception.

Alexia Khadime and Mitchell Brunings as Rita and Bob Marley.
Alexia Khadime and Mitchell Brunings as Rita and Bob Marley. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

There’s also some pretty excruciating dialogue. “I don’t know if I can carry that cross, Chris,” says Marley solemnly when the absurdly earnest Island records supremo Chris Blackwell (Alex Robertson) tells Bob his people need him.

Rather more arresting is the terrific ensemble, and there is great support from Delroy Brown as the manager who “took eight bullets” for Marley in the assassination attempt, and from Eric Kofi Abrefa as Marley’s friend Pablo, a man trying not to “fall into the pits of Babylon”. Ultz’s design succeeds in offering a flavour of the restlessness of post-independence Jamaica and a London experiencing its own punk revolution. If Brunings can’t ever quite flesh out the man, he always gives voice to Marley’s songs in a way that reminds us of a mighty talent whose music still speaks across the world, even if its creator remains stubbornly elusive.

Contributor

Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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