“My name is Arinzé Kene and I will be Bob Marley,” and with those words, this stellar performer ascends to the West End leading man status that he has long deserved. His physicality, his voice, his presence – it’s a careful study, but he’s made it look effortless. He IS Bob.
And as Bob would say, don’t worry – from the very first moment of this exuberant show, we know we’re in safe hands. By the standards of the genre, this may be a fairly conventional jukebox musical – there’s the scrappy start, the moment he discovers his musical gift, the boy meets girl bit, the triumphs, the adversity, and, of course, the tunes – but Clint Dyer’s production delivers it with such verve and panache that it stands out from the crowd.
Lee Hall’s book does away with clunky exposition, taking us on a feverish journey through Marley’s musical awakening and rise to stardom. Admittedly this sometimes leaves the story feeling a bit vague, but we’re having too much fun to care. In the early seventies, Marley rocks up in London with bandmates from the Wailers, turns up at a record company, and ends up recording an album. As his success grows, themes emerge that are still preoccupying us, as the band fight to reach the right audience and prevent having their music co-opted by white people.
This is a visual delight as well as a musical one – Chloe Lamford’s set comprised of sound systems gives everything an epic feel, while Tal Yarden’s video projections lend a sense that we’re at a massive concert. Shelley Maxwell’s choreography is so good it made me giddy. Among this seriously talented cast, standouts are Daniel Bailey as an impish Lee Scratch Perry and Gabrielle Brooks as Marley’s wife Rita (inspiring yells of adulation from the audience for her rendition of No Woman No Cry).
After a dizzyingly dynamic first act, the momentum dips slightly in the second half – perhaps inevitable given it hinges on Marley refusing to have his dodgy toe looked at. But this is also when we get a real sense of Marley’s enduring impact: as Kene performed Redemption Song, many of the audience sang softly along with him.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,” he sings. In the closing moments, it feels like this isn’t just a joyful night out – it’s a major and important cultural event.
Lyric Theatre, currently booking until April 3; getupstandupthemusical.com