Blessed with a megastar turn from Arinzé Kene and what is surely the loudest bass ever heard in the West End, ‘Get Up, Stand Up!’ is one heckuva Bob Marley tribute concert.
And that is underselling it: aside from a sound quality (and volume!) that most scrappy tribute bands could only dream of, Kene’s performance is genuinely towering stuff, a febrile mix of messianic charisma and puppyish charm that feels like it should be able to solve armed conflicts. Yes, he’s putting on the Jamaican patois, prodigiously dreadlocked wig, and several of Marley’s mannerisms - notably a delicately fluttering hand when making an earnest speech. But there is a molten core of joy and pride in performing this extraordinary music that is all Kene’s. Long established as a gifted musical performer – in leftfield works like ‘Been So Long’ and ‘Girl from the North Country’ – and having recently stormed the West End with his own brain-melting play ‘Misty’, ‘Get Up, Stand Up!’ sees Kene try his hand at something more mainsteam and pull it off with aplomb: he looks delighted to be here, and we’re delighted that he is.
And yet, despite his performance, and the unrelenting surge of energy that is Clint Dyer’s production, there’s ultimately something a bit lacking about ‘Get Up, Stand Up!’. It covers an enormous amount of ground, from Marley’s childhood to his death from cancer at the peak of his fame. But it never really drills down into any of it. We first meet Marley as a youngster, sent away by his mother to stay with a strict aunt. But this is rattled through at far too much pace to really feel moving, or even formative. Writer Lee Hall never builds Marley up as a personality: he’s onstage almost constantly and seems like an affable chap who writes some remarkable songs, but the show never examines what makes him tick. Sure, we know what his beliefs are. But we never see where they came from. Yes, Marley’s radicalism is all there in the songs, but surely Kene could have been given more of a character to work with.
‘Arinzé Kene looks delighted to be here, and we’re delighted
that he is’
In the show’s boldest move, Marley’s extremely freewheeling attitude towards women is somewhat examined. But his little boy lost charm seems to constantly exonerate him, even as he explains to his wife Rita (a sparky but underused Gabrielle Brook) why he needs to move in with Shanay Holmes’s Cindy Breakspeare. Even the moments when he indubitably looks bad (slapping Rita, or blithely fobbing his latest children off on her) feel mitigated by the show’s depiction of him as a pure, simple soul who wasn’t really built for responsibility
But it’s just not a very deep engagement with the character (and for what it’s worth Hall often seems to play extremely fast and loose with the facts). Still, it’s sadly par for the course with bio-musicals – you have to keep the musician’s estate happy or you don’t get to use the songs, and estates don’t like anything even slightly controversial (famously an entirely different, somewhat edgier Marley musical was supposed to hit the West End a few years back, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s ‘One Love’ - I’m not entirely sure what happened, but one assumed the estate decided to back this one instead).
Still, the songs are terrific, a mix of The Hits and deeper cuts, well-judged and terrifically performed, almost always by Kene, with very little jukebox mucking around. And the tunes provide an education in Marley and his life that the bland book falls short of: if you only know his works via a tinny copy of ‘Legend’, then the show’s 29 songs performed under the eye of musical director Sean Green are a real eye-opener in terms of both the breadth of Marley’s material and its visceral impact when performed right – it reclaims Marley’s rebel music from the clutches of daytime radio staple (albeit, it has to be said, for a largely white middle-aged audience, but that’s musical theatre, baby!).
‘Get Up, Stand Up!’ has wonderful tunes, a phenomenal star turn, and a weak story. For now, the first two points largely cancel out the third. But there is an awful lot resting on Arinzé Kene’s prodigious shoulders, and he’s not going to stay with the show forever. Catch the West End premiere punky reggae party while you can.