Jimmy Cliff’s story gets a shake-your-booty makeover

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

The Harder They Come:
Review and Interview
By Christine Eke
Black Theatre in Britain has come a long way. In the last three years or so not only have we been given the likes of Elmina’s Kitchen, The Big Life, and now The Harder They Come. 
For the first time the popular 1972 film starring Jimmy Cliff, which launched reggae to the world, has been brought to the stage at Theatre Royal Stratford, East London.   
The play re-tells the story of Ivan the “country bowy” who leaves for Kingston with dreams of becoming a famous singer, but soon finds himself entangled with the law.
It’s easy to become attached to Ivan, played by Actor Rolan Bell.  The character starts off by making new friends in the big city who warm to him and his pursuit of becoming a singer.   
Ivan is convinced he can get a record deal but when he comes into contact with Hilton, the money hungry record company boss he soon realises the harsh realities of the music business.
Desperate to release his first record, and survive, the lure of crime becomes too tempting.
In the end he realises a route to the fame that he craves as he goes on the rampage against those who have wronged him, all guns blazing. 
The play is a poignant take on the Kingston music business and it’s exploitation of naïve newcomers seeking a better life away from poverty.
It also reveals an under-belly of corruption in the law when drugs are thrown into fold. 
The show is very energetic and full of song, it made me forget the outside world for three hours and escape to 70s Jamaica, and because I knew some of the songs it was easy to clap and dance along.
The actors do a good job exaggerating their movement and accents, drumming up drama and hooking the audience.  Every character seems well placed; Preacher – spiritual leader to the community, Elsa – Ivan’s love-interest and Pedro the drug mule who introduces him the underworld.
Though the theatre is small it enhances intimacy. The producers have thought every detail, providing the colours of Rastafari as a background and including a live reggae band on stage for authenticity.  
This is play and a musical with a real message behind it. If you’re looking for entertainment that focuses on the black community, then this is the place to be.
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable show.
Interview with Rolan Bell
After a large search to find actors from Jamaica or of Jamaican decent, 22-year-old actor Rolan Bell was picked to play Ivan.  On the opening night Jimmy Cliff was in the audience, I asked Bell…
How did it feel to have Cliff watching you play Ivan? 
I was very flattered to be considered. I was very excited and nervous but just tried to concentrate on the story and the character. During the finale he came on the stage, it was a magical night for the actors and the audience.
Before landing the role did you see the film?
I remember my parents talking about it and hearing the music as I was growing up. My dad was a singer in Jamaica, so my mum told me about the music industry there and related it to the film.  But before getting the part I saw the film and really liked it, it definitely helped me before the audition process.
Do you relate to Ivan?
I understand the causes for his actions and the determination he has for his talent, though I wouldn’t go to the extreme of buying a gun.  He was being exploited and it got point where he had no money and was starving. I think he decided to do what he needed to do to survive. 
Ivan is very energetic and cheery, are you enjoying the role?   
I have honestly never had more fun on stage in my life! It’s a great vibe from beginning to end. We all get along really well, so I think that the audience feeds off the positive energy coming from the stage and gives it back to us…it is a fabulous sensation.
What are your hopes for the show, especially after the success of The Big Life? 
I really hope it does well. I think it could be a success in the West End and on Broadway too. It has the potential of being a great piece of musical theatre, so we’ll all have to wait and see. 
The Harder They Come will be running throughout the summer at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. To book tickets call: 0800 183 1188.
Christine Eke is a London-based journalist. She will be covering arts and media stories for The New Black Magazine
Now that you’ve read the review, please tell us what you think. E-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com
Photo: Susan Lawson-Reynolds (Pinky) and Roland Bell (Ivan) in The Harder They Come at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London.
Picture taken by Tristram Kenton


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