The King of Reggae: The Man – The Music – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Music and Lyrics: Bob Marley

Writer: Lyricist B

Adaptor: Rush Theatre Company

Rush Theatre’s mission statement reads – ‘To influence, provide opportunities, educate, and instigate change that leads to a more diverse and equitable society and cultural landscape.’ Admirable ideals and after their two hour and twenty minutes barnstorming, does-what-it-says-on the-album-sleeve, celebration of Bob Marley’s life and work they’ve hit the ground running.

It might be forgiven suggesting that a sword of Damoclean litigation hangs above this show’s conceit given that the gushing publicity is explicit in avoiding naming whose life and musical legacy it is actually celebrating. The name that cannot be named – shhh…a little bird, well, three little birds, whisper-tweet it might well be Bob Marley. No! Honestly? (Maybe the lawsuit’s in the post already?)

What distinguishes this production above just a glorified tribute ‘covers’ band on a theatrical stage (the Rep’s Main House, shamefully, barely one-third full – Birmingham, really!) is that they nail the legend and make it musical fact. ‘The fire in Bob’s Belly’ ignites an evening’s carousel cornucopia of entry-level gauche Bob Ska beginnings to the politicised passionate tee-shirt iconography of Exodus.

Give it up to a ridiculous level of high-five respect for Brum-born and dread, IKA as lead vocalist/absorbed within and without the avatar persona of Mr M himself. His weapons-grade denim-clad frame conceals a suspiciously suggestive exo-skeletal muscular profile field-tested by inviting bulldozers to press his pants into an acceptable crease his Mum would approve of. It’s going to be that sort of evening – and then some – and then some more and it’s only just started. The Company Band. Just savour that for a moment – the Company Band. ReedBass, Musical Director, has curated an avalanche ensemble of polymath slithy-tove wizard-craft instrumentalists worthy of headlining in Heaven when the great reckoning finally comes. For now, they bless all mortal creatures on Earth.

Lyricist B as Narrator embraces the role of MC cum biographer. Part exposition, part inquisition in a homage to the aforementioned, TV series, This is Your Life,‘Bob’ rarely acknowledges or challenges her narrative allowing a credibility of juxtaposed anachronisms to feed the time-line. He was, by matter of record, not shy in expressing his engagement in matters pertaining to his trouser department prowess. Many lovers and partners, some eleven acknowledged children. His epiphanic moment of spiritual succour within the Rastafarian creed is explored. Some gasps of surprise were noticeable when his mixed-race/white father parenthood was explained. From the grinding poverty of Trenchtown childhood, scratching a living to support his deserted young mother, the journey takes him to America and back, constructing his scrap-heap challenge first guitar, fate’s intervention in introducing him to Desmond Dekker. Inevitably names such as Jimmy Cliff and the erratic recording genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry unfold. Enter Chris Blackwell’s transformative fairy-dust recording techniques and management and the rest is just going to be history as Rudeboy evolves into football/prophet-shy Rastaman. Simple though Marley’s songwriting appears, seen and heard live, there is studied mastery at work with complex rhythms and ascending chord structures especially applauded in Trenchtown Rock.

The Civil Rights Movement and Marcus Garvey begin to influence his world view and lyricism, markedly in Buffalo Soldier. Counter-intuitively, Turn Your Lights Down Low elicits a legitimised excuse for the now dancing auditorium to become a spangle-fest of mobile-phone torches.

Meanwhile, making the heat real sweet, DJ and backing vocals, Ken Dread, scratches the platter with natty-dread, red-bonnet bombing beats.

As for the programme crediting Carlene Lawrence, Michelle Morris and Naomi Brown as ‘Backing Vocals’ does them a woeful injustice. Backing vocals indeed! With eye-mugging focus, in sachet-swirling, silken dresses celebrating Jamaican flag colours, they note-perfectly complement Band and IKA to perfection in dedication to the original I-Threes.

Marley’s life was but a brief candle – his legacy, an eternal light. And yes, Dahlia on the dazzling merch stall, you’ve been name-checked as promised.

Runs Until 24 September and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Brief candle - Eternal Jammin' Light

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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