Perhaps the biggest challenge facing biopic musicals is how on earth do you boil down not just the life, but the back catalogue, of the legend you’re portraying into under three hours?
Mamma Mia circumvented this by creating an entirely new plot to accompany ABBA’s music; TINA – the West End show based on Tina Turner’s life – attempted to faithfully tell her story, with mixed results.
Now Get Up, Stand Up! steps into the ring, hoping to do justice to the life of the late, great, reggae legend Bob Marley.
And you know what? It pretty much succeeds. British Jamaican director Clint Dyer – deputy artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, who replaced Dominic Cooke at the helm of the show last year – and book writer Lee Hall have managed to produce an electrifying show that doesn’t ignore the more complex aspects of Marley’s story in favour of a smooth ride.
The story plays out as a series of significant moments that give a glimpse of the man behind the music; while Marley’s turbulent childhood and abandonment by his white father are breezed past in favour of timekeeping, the impact is not forgotten. Child Marley, played by Maxwell Cole, returns throughout the show, singing to his adult self as his life gets more difficult and he plays out the mistakes of his past.
But it’s adult Bob – a superb Arinzé Kene – who guides us through the brunt of the show. There were a million moments Hall and Dyer could have focused on but the ones they pick feel vastly significant; Marley’s early collaborators, Peter Tosh (Natey Jones) and Bunny Livingston (Jacade Simpson), raising pointed and legitimate objections about the way their music was being used to line the pockets of white producers, his future wife, Rita (a transcendent Gabrielle Brooks), telling mixed-race, light-skinned Marley that he “isn’t Black”, and Marley’s growing misogyny and hypocrisy as he enters relationships with a series of women but strikes the long-suffering Rita when she refuses to break of an entanglement of her own.
Included too is the fraught political backdrop of 1970s Jamaica that Marley could not help but become central to; the bloody political struggle between Edward Seaga and Michael Manley is not ignored. Neither is the post-colonial hangover that left, as one character puts it, “Black men killing each other for two white men”. But don’t think Get Up, Stand Up! reverts to binary racial commentary. There is nuance to its messages and a layered understanding of wider racial politics, as well as the fact that individual people – like Marley himself – are not simply saints because of their contribution to liberation movements.
And on top of this, of course, is the music. Dyer and Hall could be forgiven for simply chucking in a few Marley songs and calling it a day, such is the power of his musical legacy. But the musical arrangements are what elevate this show from ‘great’ to ‘electrifying’. From the goosebump-inducing harmonies of the early iterations of The Wailers, to Gabrielle Brook’s heartbroken tour-de-force performance of ‘No Woman, No Cry’, the Marley songs selected all have reason to be here. Some favourites, like ‘Jamming’ are delivered by Kene as Marley in concert mode, with the audience as stand-ins for the real attendees of his gigs.
Other tracks advance the plot, like a beautifully layered ‘Waiting in Vain’, turned into a tearful lament by Marley’s fed up mistress, played by Shanay Holmes (making up for a hit-and-miss Jamaican accent). And when Kene pauses to outline the history of slavery in Jamaica before sliding into a tear-inducing rendition of ‘Redemption Song’, it’s a moment that, in the wrong hands, could have hit an off beat. Instead, it’s immensely powerful – and will remain so if audiences continue to be as diverse as the night I was fortunate enough to attend, which saw a soft chorus of voices rise alongside Kene’s.
This is a show filled with panache, patois and purpose. Grab tickets now.