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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Harder They Come
Barbican Theatre Spring 2008; Playhouse Summer 2008

Let us agree first that this show was not produced for boring old curmudgeons like me, and the fact that a mostly young, largely Afro-Caribbean audience is finding it and enjoying it is surely A Good Thing. So, while I'll register some criticisms of it, just for the record, they're largely irrelevant.

This musical speaks to its audience, gives them a good night out and perhaps more, and does it without the pandering or dumbing-down that characterises some theatre-for-people-who-don't-go-to-the-theatre.

This is the stage version of the 1972 movie that introduced the world to reggae music. Like the film, it tells the story of a Jamaican country boy who comes to the city hoping to be a singing star.

He runs afoul of the entrenched combine of businessmen, drug dealers and corrupt cops and becomes a fugitive and then the symbol of a popular rebellion, all to the tune of alternately bouncy and haunting music.

For the theatrical version, the film's score of songs by Jimmy Cliff has been augmented by a magpie collection of melodies ranging from traditional spirituals like Just A Closer Walk With Thee, through Boney M's Rivers of Babylon, to the Banana Boat Song (the last sung ironically by workers loading ganja for export).

Indeed, the show's biggest musical number is not the title song or Cliff's You Can Get It, but a rocking gospel-flavoured version of Your Love Has Lifted Me Higher and Higher.

And it rocks, and Perry Henzell's book and the direction by Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid tell the story fluidly, and Rolan Bell makes an attractive hero. By the time we get to the obligatory ten minutes of post-curtain-call encores, most of the audience are on their feet, bopping along with the cast.

So what follows is a string of reservations that may not matter to you. At close to three hours, the show is a little too long, and the last half-hour of plot particularly drags. Except for the central character, nobody onstage makes much of an impression.

The amplification is set at pain-threshold levels throughout, and is so badly done that actors may be way over there while their voices come out of the big speakers way over here, and you keep having to scan the stage to try and find who's talking. Jackie Guy's choreography keeps promising to break into something really exciting without ever quite doing it.

If this is your kind of music, you'll certainly enjoy this show. And if you find, say, Mamma Mia a bit too white bread for your taste, this might just have the tang you seek.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

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Review - The Harder They Come - Barbican 2008