The Harder They Come @ Barbican, London

cast list
Rolan Bell
Joanna Francis
Marcus Powell
Mensah Bediako
Susan Lawson-Reynolds
Ricardo Coke-Thomas
Victor Romero-Evans
Neisha-yen Jones
Joy Mack
Derek Elroy
Christopher Murrell
Jacqui Dubois
Joe Speare
Chris Tummings

directed by
Dawn Reid and Kerry Michael
The Harder They Come has an energetic charm that is hugely endearing. It’s not the most polished musical you’ll ever see, but it’s not trying to be.

Based on Jamaica’s first proper feature film, the film credited with introducing reggae music to an international audience, it is peppered with now classic songs: Many Rivers To Cross, You Can Get It If You Really Want, Higher and Higher. When it was staged by Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2006, and then again in 2007 it was a huge success, and it now makes the move to the Barbican.

The plot unfolds in flashback. Ivan want to make his fortune in the music business but when the local Mr Big throws a spanner in the works, refusing him the rights to his own songs, he won’t play this corrupt game, and instead turns to the drug trade to fund his dreams, eventually becoming an outlaw, hunted by the police. In the process he gains the recognition he desires, becomes something of a celebrated revolutionary figure. But it can’t end well and it doesn’t. After a tip off from his girlfriend, the police find him.

The first half is awash with musical numbers, one rapidly following another. We see Ivan roll into town and start to woo Elsa, the Preacher’s daughter but, for the most part, the story takes a backseat to the music. Song, after glorious song, all superbly performed. There are some incredibly strong voices amongst the cast, particularly Joanna Francis, as the sweetly, wide-eyed Elsa in her demure pink dress she has an amazing range.

In the second half this ratio of plot to music flips in the other direction and the songs give way to the story of Ivan’s climb to notoriety and subsequent downfall. After the joyous energy of the first half, this change in tone is jarring and the play struggles to cram in a surfeit of contextual information about poverty and police corruption, about Jamaica’s drug trade and its criminal underworld, in to too short a period of time. As a result the pace wavers in this second half and the drive of the earlier scenes ebbs away.

However the production’s ramshackle energy and sense of celebration carries it over its rougher moments. Rolan Bell makes a charismatic Ivan, fine of voice, and easy to warm to even when ambition and pride steer him towards some rash decisions. There are also plenty of nice touches that go some way to softening the often soulless Barbican space; as the audience file in, the characters are milling about onstage and off and, later, Chris Tummings, as the police chief, orders the house lights up and interrogates the audience with a mixture of menace and Panto banter.

The show ends with the now ubiquitous musical medley, the audience encouraged to rise to their feet and dance along, but though these moments can too often feel forced and tacked on, here the mood was such that people needed little encouragement to stand up and start moving.

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