This is a juke box musical featuring Bob Marley’s greatest hits strung together on a narrative consisting of anecdotes written on the back of a bus ticket. Analysis of Jamaican politics or the exploitation of baby-mothers or the cultural appropriation of reggae aren’t on the menu, and when Lee Hall nods in their direction it’s banal and tokenistic and makes you want them to sing another song. So that going in.
Big good thing – Arinze Kene is a very engaging stage presence, he sings the songs just fine, he’s all energy, he carries the show. If he wasn’t so good it would be a VERY mediocre show, but he is good. Lesser good thing – I liked the Peter Tosh/Bunny Wailer/ Bob Marley triple act, that was fun and funny, and they sang together very nicely.
Big bad things – Aston Barrett’s bass lines are beautiful; lithe, sinuous, powerful, an enormous wave that everything else rides on. The bass here is squelchy plunk-plunk-plunk nonsense with the amps turned up till the seats rattle, and I loathed every note of it, which makes the reggae-ness of the music a bit sketchy. Bob Marley’s dance moves, running on the spot and waving his arms in the air, is cute when Bob Marley or Arinze Kene do it. Making that the style for everyone in the ensemble dance numbers is just silly. And in the second half, a succession of women by whom Marley has fathered children come forward and argue with him using the lyrics of Wailers songs, and every one of them is a classy singer who feels the need to show-boat and over-soul a bunch of songs I like – ‘No Woman, No Cry’ and ‘Wait in Vain’ most notably – and if Arinze Kene had sung them I’d have been happy and he didn’t so I wasn’t. They all had cracking voices, so others may think those were high spots, but I didn’t. And crow-barring an external narrative into story-songs is something all juke-box musicals do and it’s always naff. The songs tell their own story, you can’t appropriate it and make it about Rita Marley being unhappy about being exploited and ignored.
So – lots of pretty good covers of lots of wonderful songs, a really watchable central performance, perfunctory writing, horrible bass’n’drums, all evoking a strong desire to go back home and listen to ‘Rastaman Vibrations’ from beginning to end while drinking spiced rum. Or whatever makes you mellow.