The Harder They Come

Perry Henzell
Nottingham Playhouse in association with UK Arts International
Nottingham Playhouse and touring

Production photo

It's the stage show of the film of the real-life, modern-day Robin Hood: The Harder They Come was the first black Caribbean musical to take off in the UK and there are plans next year for a world tour to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence.

The work is based on the life of Ivan or Ivanhoe Martin, a Jamaican outlaw and folk hero. He died aged 24 of gunshot wounds after being in a shoot-out with police in 1948.

The 1972 film introduced reggae to an international audience for the first time and made a star of Jimmy Cliff. Five of his songs are in the stage show: numbers such as You Can Get It If You Really Want, Many Rivers to Cross, Wonderful World, Beautiful People and the title tune are a huge factor in the enduring success of The Harder They Come.

On the evidence of a packed house on the night I attended, the music was a major attraction and appealed to all ages, black and white people alike. Great excitement accompanied the opening bars of most of the songs; there was an ecstatic reaction throughout.

Matthew J Henry who plays Ivan was greeted with a warm welcome when he appeared on stage and his talent matches expectations. He has a strong voice and he's a lithe dancer. He also has the charisma to make everyone like him even though he's playing the part of a criminal.

Henry shows clearly how Ivan adores fame and how he loves the power that comes with the purchase of a couple of guns.

As this is an ensemble piece it's almost unfair to single out anyone else in the energetic cast, although Victor Romero Evans catches the eye as the choir-conducting preacher and Marlon King astonishes with his incredibly wide vocal range.

The six-piece backing band are just as talented and vibrant while directors Kerry Michael and Dawn Smith ensure the intensity level rarely drops.

So where does The Harder They Come suffer critically? Like most musicals which latch onto a certain genre or artist, it doesn't have much depth to the plot. Ivan Martin arrives in Kingston trying to make it in the music business but finds corruption in his way wherever he goes; he turns to crime as a way of opposing the system.

There are only brief references to the hypocritical attitudes of the Church; police brutality and bribery; social exclusion; and the stranglehold that capitalism had on the community.

Some of the dialogue leaves non-Jamaicans struggling to make out several of the speeches, although you can pick up a sense of what's going on without understanding the finer details. And on press night there were several sound problems with feedback and missed cues.

But on the whole The Harder They Come is simply a great evening's entertainment. It can hardly fail with numbers such as (Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher, Day O (Banana Boat Song) and Rivers of Babylon.

The show doesn't take itself too seriously - the interval is referred to as a "15-minute ganja break" - and the megamix at the end has virtually everyone on their feet.

The Harder They Come will put you on a high - and you won't need any artificial stimulant.

"The Harder They Come" runs at Nottingham Playhouse until May 22nd and then tours to Birmingham Hippodrome, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Northampton Derngate, New Wimbledon Theatre, Salford Lowry, Oxford Playhouse and Cardiff New Theatre.

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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