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This new musical about the legendary Bob Marley is here receiving its UK premiere.
Focusing on the period of the musician’s life that saw him propelled from rising reggae star to global icon, the show features Marley’s greatest hits, including No Woman No Cry, Exodus and Jamming, all of which are performed live by the cast.
“Birmingham is a natural place for the show’s UK premiere,” says Marley’s daughter, Cedella. “With its mix of cultures, it’s a city where my father performed to audiences that were captivated by his presence. I have no doubt that telling the story through music to a new generation in Birmingham will be part of his continuing legacy.”
Monday – Saturday with 2.00pm matinee performances on Thursdays and 4pm matinee performances on Saturdays excluding 11 March.
£from £15. Previews from £10
Interview by Heather Kincaid
On 3 December 1976, two days before performing in Kingston's Smile Jamaica concert, Bob Marley, his wife and his manager were wounded in an assassination attempt by unknown gunmen who invaded Marley's home. The attack prompted the singer to leave the country before the end of the year, spending a month in the Bahamas before heading for England. It was here that, over the next two years, he would record the albums Exodus and Kaya, featuring iconic singles such as One Love, Jamming and Is This Love.
Set against a backdrop of violence and corruption in Jamaica and wider Cold War conflict across the world, this period of self-imposed exile serves as the basis for Kwame Kwei-Armah's One Love: The Bob Marley Musical, making its UK debut at Birmingham REP next month. Speaking to us from Centre Stage in Baltimore, where he’s currently artistic director, the acclaimed British playwright, actor and director told us more about the show.
“The story actually starts about 10 years ago,” Kwei-Armah recalls, “when I was approached by Island Records to write a piece using Bob Marley's music but not his story. So I wrote that, it did the rounds, and everyone said, 'That's great, but where's Bob?' So about two-and-a-half years ago, they contacted me again with the rights to use his life story. I chose as my starting point the years between 1976 and ’78 because I wanted to look at the hero's journey - what made him the great man that he was, not just because of his music but because of his choices in life.”
A pacifist who actively cultivated a politically neutral public profile and frequently spoke out against the bloodshed in his country, Marley nevertheless found himself embroiled in both domestic and international conflict, targeted by those who saw him as a supporter of Michael Manley's socialist government. At the time, Western anxiety over the ‘red tide’ of communism was still running high, and the government's agenda was viewed with suspicion by many at home as well as abroad.
Thanks to Marlon James' Man Booker Prize-winning novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, interest in Marley's relationship with this period of Jamaican history has recently been rekindled, but what's unique about this show is how closely Kwei-Armah has worked with the Marley family and record label, providing him with unprecedented access to the personal stories behind the public persona.
“It's been wonderful but also pretty daunting. I spoke to many people in Bob Marley’s life and tried to use a lot of dialogue how they described it. I sent drafts of the script to the family. Luckily, they've been very helpful - all the criticism has been very constructive. They've allowed me to adapt the story and take artistic licence where I've needed, to change things to make the story work.”
Kwei-Armah is now an ardent and long-term admirer of Marley's work, but interestingly, this hasn't always been the case. As a teenager, he was more interested in soul music, reggae being more to his sister's tastes.
“It was partly just sibling rivalry, but though it sounds like madness now, it was actually a big thing at the time. In the black community when I was a child, you made a choice at about 12 years old whether you were going to be into reggae or American soul. If you liked reggae, that meant that you were rooted and cultured, and if you liked soul that meant you weren't really culturally conscious. It wasn't until I was about 19 that I heard Redemption Song, for what must have been about the 1500th time, but for me, it was really like the first time. At that moment, I just understood what he was saying, and from there he grew to become my own personal poet laureate.”
Years later, however, Kwei-Armah is still discovering new things about his hero as he digs deep into the details of Marley's fascinating life.
“One of the things I didn't really know before was that he was a very quiet man. And of course we know that he was deeply religious, but I think just quite how dedicated he was to his faith was an interesting thing for me to learn. I was also surprised by how many people in Jamaica really relied on him. He was like an industry, and not just musically. I mean, there were actually people lining up at his house, waiting to be given money. That was quite a humbling thing to read.”
Writing the story is one thing; attempting to adequately represent such an iconic figure live on stage is quite another, and in some respects, the weight of expectation on singer and musician Mitchell Brunings, who plays the lead, is even greater than that on the writer and director of the show.
“Casting is always the hardest part of any show, and I think we were quite fortunate that I came across Mitchell on the internet. This is his first time acting, so it's been really interesting helping him develop the skills to carry a character like this, but when he sings - you just close your eyes and think of Bob...”
Under its original title, Marley, the show premiered in 2015 at Baltimore's Center Stage theatre. But though it was popular and warmly received in the US, the version coming to Birmingham this year will be dramatically different.
“I would say there have been fundamental changes. We've used that first production to learn lessons and have taken the time to tell a much deeper and more complex story.”
Following the huge success of plays like Elmina's Kitchen and Fix Up (both directed by Angus Jackson), exploring the lives of immigrant communities in the UK, the London-born writer soon became one of the most prominent and respected voices in black British theatre. Now he’s taken his stories overseas - it's about five-and-a-half years since he became resident in the US after taking up his post at Center Stage.
“I think we're looking at a beautiful time in America for new writing, both in television and in theatre. It's a kind of golden moment, so I'm really pleased to be in America as an artistic director whilst the quality of the work is so good structurally and politically.”
Both Kwei-Armah and Marley's daughter, Cedella, are thrilled to be bringing the show to Birmingham, which the latter describes as a “natural place for its UK premiere” thanks to its “great mix of cultures”. In particular, she says, she's looking forward to introducing her father's story to a new generation, some of whom weren't yet born during his lifetime. Arguably, the mythology of Marley has rather overtaken the man behind it. These days, his image has become ubiquitous, plastered across a dazzling array of merchandise and increasingly disconnected from who he was and what he stood for. But Kwei-Armah maintains that Marley is as important now as he’s ever been, and that as long as people come to see the show, they won't fail to be moved by his music and his message.
“Wherever I've travelled in the world, I don't think I've landed on any continent where I haven't seen some young person wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt, and I think his image and his lyrics are still political. He is the voice of the oppressed and the downtrodden. I think people will see that this isn't just a story about a vintage star - it's about a man who stood for something and whose music made a difference to people's lives. And I think that, between our Brexit Britain and our Trump America, that's something that we really need.”
One Love: The Bob Marley Musical shows at The REP, Birmingham, from Friday 10 March to Saturday 8 April.
**** Chris Eldon Lee
A musical about Bob Marley was always going to be a sure-fire hit from the moment someone thought of it.
Judging by the waves of adulation welling up in the auditorium and crashing onto the stage at Birmingham Rep last night, substantial sections of the audience were willing themselves to believe Mitchell Brunings really was Bob Marley. I even wondered if he briefly believed it too; for it certainly was a completely committed portrayal of the reggae legend.
And it was brave casting. Brunings’ CV tells us he was a finalist on the Dutch version of ‘The Voice’ … but is strangely quiet on the subject of acting. Yet he walked and talked and sang just like Marley, backed by a hugely authentic and exceptionally tight nine-piece band. In their early days, The Wailers were accused of being rough, ready and indulgent - but the songs in this show are short, slick and slightly sanitised.
Kwame Kwei Arham’s script presents the middle part of Marley’s life, from the ambitious early days when he threatened a DJ who wouldn’t play his records, to the big ‘One Love’ Peace Concert in 1978. (So, no cradle and no tragically premature grave).
There is the air of an old-fashioned bio-pic about this musical. The key episodes in his life are served up in chronological order in a practical, prosaic manner. We also get explanations about the politics, culture and religion of Jamaica … and his devotion to Haile Selassie; all delivered as simply as possible. At times the dialogue was so straight forward it was comparable to a panto script. When Marley leaves for London saying, ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back’, it’s pure Dick Whittington.
He spent much of his life denying he had political interests beyond taking reggae to new heights. But even he could not ignore the post-colonial turmoil in his Jamaica and some of the most arresting scenes involve the political opponents Michael Manley (a greying Adrian Irvine) and Edward Seaga (a very pink Simeon Truby) who both try to manipulate Marley and his music to their own ends. The famous photo of all three of them clasping hands in unity is faithfully and movingly recreated. It’s a pity it didn’t last.
The show also focuses on Marley’s personal struggle. Described as being ‘too white for the black men and too black for the white men’, his desperate desire for racial identity cuts like a knife. And the dodgy bits of his private life are far from glossed over; his drugs and sexual dalliances.
Both women in his life are superbly portrayed. The frustrations of his affair with Miss World winner Cindy Breakspeare are etched on the fresh face of Cat Simmons; and the pain of being a deceived wife haunts the velvet voice of Alexia Khadime, who has such a hypnotic gracefulness on stage.
The show is populated with memorable male cameos. Delroy Brown is excellent, for example, as Marley’s Manager Don Taylor - trying to keep a world star’s feet on the ground – as is Eric Kofi Abrefa, playing Marley’s jovial spiritual mentor Pablo with increasing concern.
There is a great deal of patois humour (some of which passed this particular white boy by) and, of course, lashing of marvellous music. The choreography for the classic hits is edgy and inventive; counterbalanced by beautiful ballad treatments of songs like ‘Waiting In Vain’ and ‘Is This Love’.
It’s also good to hear tracks from that breakthrough album ‘Catch A Fire’…for once this show catches fire, there is no dousing the legend of Bob Marley.
If you never got the chance to see Bob Marley live, watching Mitchell Brunings in One Love is undoubtedly the next best thing. His charisma, vocal authenticity and genuine star quality are something quite extraordinary.
Yet this isn't just a tribute act: it's about more than just the music. Brunings fully inhabits this troubled character, delivering a nuanced, sensitive performance that encapsulates the almost naïve earnestness with which Marley threw himself into everything he did, from music to religion, love affairs to peace campaigning. On the one hand, when he sings, it's clear where Brunings' principal talent lies. On the other, it's remarkable to think that he was picked up as a musician rather than an actor, so natural and at ease does he appear on stage.
Happily, rather than attempting to tell Bob's whole life story, director Kwame Kweih Armah hones in on the period between Smile Jamaica, the attempt on Marley's life and his flight to Britain in December 1976, and his eventual return for the One Love Peace Concert almost a year and a half later.
That said, there's still some fairly perfunctory filling in of background details early on. The first good chunk of the play actually falls outside this window, breezing through the Wailers' first UK tour and emphasising Marley's transformation from ambitious Rudeboy to the international face of Rastafari. His conversion in particular is rather abrupt and uninspired. Though the band sounds great together and there are some very funny moments early on from Newton Matthews as Bunny and Alex Robertson as producer Chris Blackwell, it's not really till the lead-up to the shooting that things properly get going.
When they do, however, it's as startling and immediate as gunfire. An explosive rendition of “Burnin' & Lootin'” sees the ensemble cast dancing behind the gates of Marley's Hope Road home as though incarcerated, while Brunings' soul-searching vocal rises above the roar of rioting in the streets.
Atmosphere is something that this show is rich in, with elaborate yet versatile design by ULTZ and immersive video projection by Duncan McLean effortlessly transporting us from the Kingston ghetto to the bustling streets of London, and from the clamour and chaos of an English Clash concert to the complete spiritual calm of the Ethiopian countryside. The last prompts another stand-out moment: a serene Brunings amplifies the stillness with an electrifying take on “Redemption Song”.
Elsewhere, there are heart-wrenching duets with Alexia Khadime as Bob's wife Rita, and Cat Simmons as his mistress Cindy Breakspeare. Both Simmons and Eric Kofi Abrefa as friend and religious guide Pablo possess rich, soulful voices, and there are beautiful harmonies when the Wailers play together. Fully integrated into the performance, the backing band are also brilliantly energetic.
Some of the cast are clearly more confident than others with the accent, and technical hiccups made odd lines difficult to hear, but these creases should be quickly ironed out as the run continues.
Kweih Armah has been quite insistent that this show is not a “sing-along-a Bob”, and it's true that this is much more moving and complex than your run-of-the-mill, rise of a rockstar jukebox musical. The polarisation and deep distrust of “politricks” in Bob's Jamaica at times feel very close to home. But rest assured, it's not all angst and hardship – it's uplifiting too, and when Bob finally flies back to Kingston to an adoring hero's welcome, the concert that follows is joyous. The blazing triumph of his uniting of political leaders Michael Manley (Adrian Irvine) and Edward Seaga (Simeon Truby) gives way to celebratory dancing – and yes, a lot of singing – in the aisles and across the stage. By the end, there's not a soul left sitting down.
Reviewed by Heather Kincaid
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