(In honour of the Arts Council, perhaps this one could be referred to as tick-box reviewing...)
Jamaica is a beautiful land of bright colours, reggae music, marijuana, and evangelical Christianity where even the most abject poverty can be accepted with a song and a spliff. At least that’s what Perry Henzell would have audiences believe in (get ready for it) the Barbican’s transfer of Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of Henzell’s adaptation of his original 1972 film The Harder They Come, which he co-wrote with Trevor Rhone.
Whew, what a mouthful.
This tale of a country boy’s attempts to make it big in the music business via sex, drugs, and violence has gone through two sold-out productions at its fringe home and is parked at the Barbican for a month before embarking on a UK tour. Brimming with soulful reggae classics and a glowing passion for life in the face of adversity, The Harder They Come is a solid night out, albeit flawed. By handling his own adaptation, Henzell assumes a level of familiarity with the film’s plot and the Jamaican politics of its time which modern (white?) British audiences are likely to miss without going home and checking resources on the original material. In addition to the subtextual issues, a more glaring problem comes as the book takes leaps through protagonist Ivan’s life without any solid idea of a timescale. When Ivan turns from frustrated musician to revolutionary anti-hero, it happens in the blink of an eye and a scene lacking clarity.
That said, most audience members aren’t expecting (or seeking) a work about Caribbean socioeconomic concerns, and the score, recycling the film’s line up with a healthy dose of classics and standards (all uncredited) to boot is where it’s at. The result is a mix of tones and outlooks, frequently finding the humour in bleak events - Little Sally wouldn’t call this a happy musical, but it’s joyous nonetheless.
Rolan Bell leads the endlessly energetic cast as the ruthlessly naïve Ivan with some of the best dance moves to hit the London stage in months. The remaining cast have individual identities during the dialogue scenes, but fall back to form the community surrounding Ivan’s life during most of the songs.
Design-wise, this production betrays its low budget roots. A cheap looking fixed set by Ultz (also responsible for Stratford East’s recent production of The Blacks) is decked out in red/yellow/green, containing the cast as they mill about with the band located in centre stage and stage right. His costumes, likely resembling the film (the RZ hasn’t seen it), bring out the the best and worst of 1970’s excess from disco to blaxploitation films. While the period is evoked, nothing in the design resembles the grit present in the material or the original film’s image.
While The Harder They Come doesn’t fall hard on its arse, it’s an imperfect yet infectious time out, though non-Brits are likely to feel they’re missing something. The Island experience is tied far more closely to the Black British community (and therefore UK culture at large) than the Af-Am subculture in the States, one would be hard pressed to justify missing this in what is shaping up to be a solid spring for musical fans.
Where: Barbican Main Stage
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 14:30 until 5 April
How Much: £10-£30
Concessions: All tickets £5 on 2 April @ 14:30, check with Barbican for others.
RZ Unofficial Worth Paying: £20. Off-Broadway script and production values.
RZ Other Notes: It’s fascinating to see how the newspaper critics handle shows like these. At the Guardian, Lyn Gardner gushed over this show’s fringe run and the fact that it’s apparently the first all-black cast and creative team musical to be in the UK, while the Telegraph’s reviewer took a far more standard approach. Would this have had the lifespan it’s had including its new high profile run if it had white producers or directors? Who knows. What the RZ does know is that the prospects of a West End run happening, let alone turning a profit for The Harder They Come are slim, even if it is following the same adaptation formula as, say, the ultra white-bread Dirty Dancing.