A fortress-like wall of speakers is wheeled on at the start of this musical about Bob Marley’s life, and it defines the terms of a show that speaks and feels primarily through its songs.
Clint Dyer’s pulsating production has the spirit of a staged concert with spoken scenes tucked in between the songs, and with the emotional freight of the story carried in its celebrated music. Sometimes this means that character and dialogue are sacrificed but the music is infectious – and there is a central performance from Arinzé Kene that soars and tingles the spine.
Chloe Lamford’s dynamic set works with Charles Balfour’s concert-like lighting, along with arresting choreography by Shelley Maxwell, while Tal Yarden’s video designs sweep us into the story in a visual drama that feels almost visceral: a back screen swirls with colour and images of windswept Jamaican palms. A thick, deep bass (the sound is designed by Tony Gayle, with musical direction from Sean Green) adds to the sense of a show created to be felt in the gut.
Every song has magic and Kene’s voice is extraordinarily strong. There is a rousing rendition of War (with bombs of flashing light) based on Haile Selassie’s UN speech in 1963, and Redemption Song is prefigured with a pungent oration on Caribbean slavery and liberation.
It is a puzzle nonetheless that, with a writer as talented as Lee Hall, the book should be so minimal in its effects, with too-brief scenes incorporating Marley’s politics, consciousness-raising and Rastafarianism. They speak in statements or deliver information and we gain little sense of individual character.
The strongest storyline tells of Marley’s infidelities, which he claims are a protest against a western model of monogamy. His wife, Rita (Gabrielle Brooks), does not let him get away with that and there are moving scenes between the two, as well as those with Marley’s lover, the beauty queen Cindy (one of several women with whom he fathered children), played by Shanay Holmes, who tells him: “You are just addicted to falling in love.”
This theme is also channelled through song. At one moment, as Marley and Cindy duet, Rita stands at a distance, singing, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” and we feel her hurt. The voices of Brooks and Holmes are every bit as astounding as that of Kene, and they sing some of Marley’s most celebrated songs (Is This Love; Waiting in Vain; No Woman, No Cry), which creates its own complicated ripples – his words in their mouths.
There are lovely theatrical touches. Multiple actors playing Marley as he grows up are sometimes on stage at once – the older Marley looks on at the boy (in this performance it’s Maxwell Cole, a talented dancer) who is sent away by his mother, and the boy comforts the man after he is diagnosed with cancer at the age of 32. He dies at 36.
The jump cuts in Marley’s life story – with childhood whizzing forward quickly to marriage, meeting the Wailers and surviving a shooting – ultimately leave us at a remove from Marley the man. But there is a powerful sense of spirit here and it is a tribute so infectious that it defies an audience not to sing or sway along.
At the Lyric theatre, London, until 3 April.