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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Harder They Come

Many rivers to cross and it`s only my will That keeps me alive
I`ve been licked, washed up for years and,
I merely survive because of my pride.
— Lyrics to "Many Rivers to Cross"
The Harder They Come
Victor Romero Evans as Pedro and Rolan Bell as Ivan
(Photo: Robert Day)
From the Theatre Royal at Stratford East, The Harder They Come a vibrant new reggae musical based on the 1972 film that launched Jimmy Cliff and this Jamaican based music genre, takes the Barbican by storm. A new star is born in Rolan Bell, the dancer, singer and actor.

Bell plays the main role, that of a poor Jamaican singer "ruud bwai" (rude boy), Ivan Martin, based on the real life story of "a self styled ghetto Robin Hood, Ivanhoe "Rhygin" Martin. The real man died in a shoot- out with police in 1948.

The musical lets us know from the very beginning that Ivan will die young because, like Evita, it opens with the wake for him, the party the night before his funeral in Kingston. It works to set the scene and Victor Romero Evans as Pedro leads the singing wearing a foot high, knitted rasta hat in the colours of an old Ethiopian flag, red, white, green and black. You will be blown away by the singing and dance talents of this cast and their ability to do both at once seemingly without effort.

The introductory number is the Desmond Dekker hit, "You Can Get It If You Really Want" which pleases everybody in the audience because it is so well known as Ivan travels from his home in the countryside to the big city. The arrival of the poor boy at his mother's home in Kingston Jamaica sees him full of hope with ambition: he dreams of piped water, a colour TV and a washing machine. Miss Daisy (Joy Mack) had left him to be raised by his grandmother and when he realises there is no room for him with his mother and he is homeless, they sing the Boney M hit "By The Rivers of Babylon". This ballad of distress is touching. Fortunately Ivan meets up with the local church, cue some gospel numbers, "I Am Blessed" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and one chorister in particular, good girl and preacher's ward, Elsa (Joanna Francis).

The Church Choir win the local talent contest and Ivan's ambition is to get the record made but he doesn't like the percentage deal offered by the record label boss Hilton (Marcus Powell). As Ivan and Elsa get it on to "(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher", the seduction dance is as sexy as anything you'll see in Dirty Dancing. Ivan is short of the money to produce the record himself but Pedro offers him a way into the marijuana trade and they sing this hymn to Cannabis, "Cannabis, Marijuana, Mary Jane, Ganga".

Act Two opens with the sound of a helicopter making a drop. Ivan is caught by the police and beaten up to the song that gave the film its title, "The Harder They Come, the Harder They Fall". "Shanty Town" is about gangs and guns and shootings. Ivan is on the run because he has shot two policemen but and his final betrayal is a protracted affairs which would benefit from a judicious cut. It's a shame, because the first half is so brilliant that the drawn out denouement detracts from the whole.

This is Rolan Bell's show. He has a lovely voice and great rangy dance moves and I really liked Jackie Guy's choreography which often has the cast mirroring the dance moves of the principal. The whole cast are onstage most of the time, like the audience, watching the action and several groups of musicians provide the backing. Each musician gets a stab at the solo spot in this inclusive musical. The set design is minimal but the cast are dressed eclectically and Ivan's style develops from the white cap he buys on arrival in Kingston.

the Harder They Come
Written by Perry Henzell
Directed by Kerry Michael

Starring: Victor Romero Evans, Rolan Bell, Joanna Francis
With: Mensah Bediako, Ricardo Coke-Thomas, Jacquie Dubois, Derek Elroy, Matthew J Henry, Neisha-yen Jones, Susan Lawson-Reynolds, Joy Mack, Christopher Murrell, Marcus Powell, Colin Roy, Joe Speare, Chris Tummings
Band: Perry Melius, Wayne Nunes, Daren Benjamin, Greg Assing, Alan Weekes, Peter-Lee
Design: Ultz
Choreographer: Jackie Guy
Musical Directors: Perry Melius, Wayne Nunes
Musical Supervisor: Geraldine Connor
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Lighting: Jo Joelson
Sound: Stefan Lumsden
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes plus an encore with one interval
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking at the Barbican to 5th April 2008 then to the Birmingham Hippodrome 11th to 13th April 2008
Update: Transferring to Playhouse Theatre Northumberland Avenue from Friday 23rd May to Saturday 1st November
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th March 2008 performance at The Barbican Theatre, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2 (Tube: Barbican, Moorgate)

Song List
(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher
Day-O Banana Boat Song
The Harder They Come
Sitting in Limbo
Many Rivers to Cross
Johnny Too Bad
Rivers of Babylon
007 (Shanty Town)
Sweet and Dandy
Pressure Drop
You Can Get It If You Really Want
Wonderful World, Beautiful People
The Ganga Song
Woman and Money
Draw Your Brakes
Guitar Riff taken from No Jestering
Daniel Saw the Stone (traditional song)
From Mi Come Yah (traditional song)
My Father Dead (Sung My Brother Dead) (traditional song)
I Am Blessed (traditional song)
Just a Closer Walk With Thee (traditional song)
Ah Come Mi Dissa Come (traditional song)
What a Wonderful Ting (traditional song)
Love Got Lion Heart (traditional Jamaican lullaby song)

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