REVIEW: THE HARDER THEY COME
By Shaun Hutchinson
Monday, March 17, 2008.
This re-working of Perry Henzell's iconic 1972 movie, 'The Harder They Come', as a feelgood musical is a triumph. For sure, the reggae soundtrack was as important as the story itself - introducing a global audience to the dread culture and sounds of Kingston, Jamaica.
But the ghetto parable of an innocent country boy, Ivan Martin, was so gritty, dramatic and darkly told that to transform the movie into the upbeat, sing-along traditions of a musical drama was bound to be a challenge.
Doubts were long disproved though by the popularity of this joint Theatre Royal Stratford East and UK Arts production. Box-office records have already been broken during two runs at London's Theatre Royal Stratford East Stratford, in 2006 and 2007.
Returning to the more upmarket Barbican Theatre, London, alongside Film Jamaica - a season celebrating the island's musical heritage, the show features many returning cast members. The performance was also a tribute to writer and playwright Perry Henzell, who died in November 2006.
Theatregoers uninitiated into the Jamaican fable [and the story behind the story - the film took months to make and enjoyed the talents of three separate editors] will adore the famous songs, the energy and zest of the performances.
Although, more knowledgeable watchers may be left wanting. We get the bare bones of the story - Ivan Martin's journey from an idyllic Jamaican country life to a Kingston of brutal exploitation and cut-throat competition. Whilst he achieved fame, it's not as he expected and the fool's gold glamour of the music industry is - in reality - as cold-hearted as the hustling and corruption of the ganja trade, and Jamaica's brutal and corrupt police and business elite.
In a contemporary London where gun crime and regular violence amongst teenagers is a problem, Ivan’s character posing and styling in the infamous gun-toting photos is slightly worrying.
The exuberance of the music overcomes the revamping of the plot - slightly disjointed and with a guerilla film-making feel in any case - into the tight formula needed for a newer audience.
Everything merges here; mix-tape style from the gospel choir first seen on the bare stark stage designed by Ultz. And there's the young rudebwoy Ivan's gory ending. The large stage, without backcloth, has a shebeen quality, which suits the production and is filled with the entire cast and the live band most of the time.
It’s the band that holds this performance together in
front of a near capacity, star-studded audience. The musicians move effortlessly between traditional Rasta drum-led chants, to gospel to ska and reggae.
There is more humour here than in the original film and a sprint pace between the long famous songs, which includes the title track, together with Rivers of Babylon, Many Rivers to Cross, Johnny Too Bad, 007, and You Can Get It if You Really Want.
Whilst the strong ensemble of Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid’s co-directed production vibrantly delivers these classics of reggae music, the story for which they provided a memorable backdrop is not delivered with the same finesse.
Lead character Roland Bell makes the role his own, acts without inhibition and sings with passion at the same time as doing an uncanny impersonation of Jimmy Cliff’s ghetto rebel. Joanna Francis as Elsa also gives a standout singing performance.
Victor Romero Evans and Chris Tummings are also present with their years of singing and acting experience. Tummings, especially, breaks the ice well into the night’s performance with a well-timed mini stand-up routine.
Having said that, this audience was actually strangely subdued [English reserve perhaps] until very late in the performance. The barnstorming ending – three ovations and a tribute to the late Perry Henzell - was enough to have the audience leaving with musical appetites satisfied at least.
The Harder They Come
Until 5 April 2008 / , ,
Written By Perry Henzell
Based on the film The Harder They Come produced and directed by Perry Henzell and co-written by Trevor Rhone
A Theatre Royal Stratford East and UK Arts Production
Directed by Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid
Design by Ultz
Choreography by Jackie Guy
Musical Supervisor Geraldine Connor
Revival supported by barbicanbite08
Part of Do Something Different
Part of The Harder They Come season
Part of Spring 08 Contemporary events
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.
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