Words by Lucy Mounfield / Production pics by Helen Maybanks
‘One Love’ is a misnomer. The title alludes to Bob Marley’s song about getting together to fight those who seek to break and tear the world apart, more specifically about the tumultuous civil war in Jamaica during the 1970’s. ‘One love, one heart’ is Marley’s chant.
However One Love: The Bob Marley Musical did not portray Marley the man as impassioned peace keeper but a womanising, often unlikeable character. This was not a clear-cut tale of a social and musical revolution, but a series of events that happened seemingly because a variety of people around Marley pushed and cajoled him into making decisions.
A party celebrating Jamaica’s independence set the scene for the beginning of One Love and introduced us to the early formation of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Indeed the DJ called them this rather than simply The Wailers, as they were known then. A live band played at the back of the stage with the main cast – Bob, Bunny and Peter playing their parts on a podium made of wooden pallets.
The set nicely represented the troubled history of Jamaica, with the flag pinned above the stage with hologrammatic picture of the Queen projected on top of it. Massive speakers, piled high like Tetris formations, flanked the podium where Bob (Mitchell Brunings), Bunny (Newtion Matthews) and Peter (Jacade Simpson) stood early playing the song ‘Simmer Down’. These first scenes depict the musical development of the band and initiate the themes of civil unrest, poverty and Bob Marley the bully. Bob, Bunny and Peter are told by Rita Marley – Bob’s wife who is newly pregnant, that they need to change their look from rude boy to nice boys who sing love songs like ‘Guava Jelly’ instead of violence orientated ‘I Shot the Sherriff’.
Humour is used well here, but when the band beat up a radio presenter at Jamaica Broadcasting House and basically threaten him to play their songs, it suggests that violence was an ordinary part of Jamaican life. The fight sequences were sloppy and badly executed, which cut through the fact that the protagonists were so desperately poor they would wield baseball bats to make some quick money.
Bob Marley and The Wailers escape poverty to do a few concerts in Britain. Marley signs with Chris Blackwell (Alex Robertson) at Island Records and the band make their first album, Catch a Fire. Blakewell is seen dancing to their album with Marley in the background, singing ‘Get Up Stand Up’ in the sound booth. This scene captures the raw danceability of Bob Marley’s songs and the passion with which they are sung. Later Bob Marley and The Wailers take these songs on tour to The Flamingo Club, Dudley. Here we see the controlling determination of Marley who pushes his friends away by touring England instead of going back to Jamaica. They in turn leave, to the indifference of their friend.
Pablo (Eric Kofi Abrefa) from the band The Upsetters tells Bob Marley that he should forget love songs and realise that he has the power to change things for the better, ultimately telling him to join the Rastafari movement. This was a major change in Marley’s life and made apparent in One Love as key part of his identity – Bob Marley’s Rastafari clothes, chant and belief in Haile Selassie I running throughout. Complete with dreadlocks, Brunings looked the spitting image of Marley.
However the single scene to bridge the change is Pablo singing ‘Forever Loving Jah’. What caused this change of identity? I’m not sure I know; One Love: The Bob Marley Musical does arguably require some prior knowledge, especially about the political and civil unrest in Jamaica during the 60s and 70s. The production shows two leaders of Jamaica’s main political parties – the Prime Minister and the leader of the main opposition party – clearly conflicting, standing at each side of the stage with films and pictures of soldiers shooting people being projected on the walls behind them. The use of projection was effective in creating and building the context for Bob Marley’s music and quest for peaceful unification. However spanning a decade and a half the narrative lacked depth, such as Marley’s seemingly sudden interest in making peace whilst he was in England signing with Island records and touring for the most part of the first act.
After ‘Forever Loving Jah’ the political tensions ramp up with Bob Marley gearing up for the Smile Jamaica concert. ‘Burnin’ and Lootin’’ and ‘War’ are aptly used to tell the story of the assassination attempt upon Bob Marley and his reaction to it; Marley feels betrayed by Jamaica, a country he has only ever sought peace for (at least he did with the free concert). These last songs were performed excellently by Brunings; his vocal work is impressive, his mannerisms, swaying, twisting and bobbing recreate Marley’s performances aptly. Although when not singing Brunings tended to be stiff and stilted which could make a scene look awkward.
The ensemble cast have lots of passion and energy, helping to lift the flatter pace of the second half. The later narrative centres around Bob Marley’s self imposed exile to England and the worst in his behaviour that this brings out – from his various affairs with women, fall out with his friend Pablo, and lying to his wife Rita. Bob Marley’s mood becomes self-destructive, until a series of scenes in the recording studio making the album Exodus change his mind about Jamaica.
One of these scenes features ‘No Woman No Cry’, sung by Rita Marley who has found out about her husband’s affairs; one of the highlights of the production, as she sings with an emotional poignancy that emphasises her misplaced faith in her husband. Alexia Khadime shines as Bob Marley’s strong wife who fights to get him back from his lover Cindy (Cat Simmonds), but the scene is long with various characters coming and going whilst Bob Marley stands onstage. The pace became flat again and needed a change of levels or setting, a shift to add some much needed energy to the performances. I think Brunings would have been better suited to singing a full concert, instead of parts of songs interlaced with dialogue which tended see the character’s motivation get lost.
As for the soundtrack, the live band were excellent but the changes of songs could be awkward and the sound quality a little poor in places. Plus the actors ran over each other’s lines in the beginning (nerves?) and on a couple of occasions the timing of the music suffered from this.
The finale saw Bob Marley return from the Rastafari homeland in Ethiopia to perform at the One Love Concert in Jamaica – the titular event where Marley united the islands two warring politicians by thrusting their hands together in the air.
A fitting end to a Bob Marley tribute – the music says it all. And as the REP audience were on their feet singing, chanting and dancing, one that goes to show what a legend Bob Marley has become.
One Love: The Bob Marley Musical runs daily at Birmingham REP (except Sundays) until Saturday 15th April. For direct event info and online tickets sales, click here.
For more on Kwame Kwei-Armah, visit www.unitedagents.co.uk/kwame-kwei-armah
For more from Birmingham REP, including full event listing and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk