Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15
Opened 6 April, 2006

It may seem odd to describe an evening of drug-dealing, police corruption, music payola and gun crime, which begins with the hero’s wake so we know it can scarcely end well, as a feel-good show. But the status of The Harder They Come far transcends its narrative. Perry Henzell’s 1972 film rescued reggae from the realms of sanitised novelty and popularised its authentic roots form worldwide, as well as giving an insight into the “sufferah” culture within Jamaica which informed the music. Now Henzell has written a stage version which includes not only all the movie soundtrack songs by Jimmy Cliff and others but a clutch of additional numbers ranging from a Lee “Scratch” Perry tune to (cheekily) the “Banana Boat Song”. Yet it begins, audaciously, not with either the title track or the heartbreaking “Many Rivers To Cross”, but with a selection of traditional songs for the dead.

Dark humour and poignancy blend at every step of the way, as country hick Ivan arrives in Kingston hoping to make it as a singer, only to find the business sewn up so tightly that the only way he can advance is by getting involved in the marijuana trade and then threatening DJs at gunpoint to give his record airplay. The songs do not always integrate with the narrative and emotional journeys as well as one expects in a musical these days, but it’s clear that thought and imagination have gone into the structuring. With winning cynicism, some scenes of extreme violence occur to Cliff’s (non-soundtrack) song “Wonderful World, Beautiful People”. Much of Henzell’s script is rhymed, so that the pre-rap form of Jamaican rhythmic “toasting” runs through the evening.

As Ivan, Rolan Bell makes up in sinuous sweetness what he lacks in “heavy” compared to Jimmy Cliff in the movie; when Bell entered in the full iconic regalia, from cap and shades to snakeskin boots, I felt a shiver of excitement at seeing such an image in the flesh. Designer Ultz sets Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid’s production in a simple, bare dancehall, with an ensemble of a dozen or so performing around a band centre-stage propelled by the depth-charge bass guitar of Wayne Nunes. A year ago, Stratford East was celebrating the transfer of The Big Life as the first black British musical to hit the West End; this deserves to follow it, and to surpass it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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