The Harder They Come review at Theatre Royal Stratford East London

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Last year the Theatre Royal at Stratford East deservedly came up to town with the wittily and tunefully original musical The Big Life and became the first-ever black-created British musical set amongst a local community ever to play in the West End.

But now Stratford East disappointingly mirror the commercial theatre’s current preoccupations with both re-visiting old films and back pop catalogues by bringing an iconic 1972 Jamaican feature The Harder They Come to the stage that features a soundtrack full of hit parade standards like Rivers of Babylon, You Can Get It if You Rally Want and Many Rivers to Cross.

While these are vibrantly rendered by the strong ensemble of Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid’s co-directed production and sends the audience out on a crowd-pleasing high with the now inevitable megamix finale reprise of the evening’s musical highlights, the threadbare drama that links them is clumsily handled.

Perry Henzell – who also co-wrote the original film – provides snapshot scenes that are at once predictable and insufficiently motivated to tell the cliched story of the rags-to-glitches tale that one Ivanhoe Martin (Roland Bell) encounters as he tries to negotiate the corruption of the music industry in Kingston, Jamaica. Instead of shooting to the top, he shoots his way out of the frustrations he faces.

Co-produced with UK Arts, whose last musical Vodou Nation took us into the musically unfamiliar territory of Haiti but lacked narrative cohesion, this show is likewise full of atmosphere but lacks tension. But the numbers, at least, that range from gospel-tinged traditional songs to pop hits, are terrific and are accompanied by a stonking onstage band.

Production Information

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, From April 6

Perry Henzell, based on the film The Harder they Come produced and directed by Perry Henzell and co-written with Trevor Rhone
Kerry Michael, Dawn Reid
Theatre Royal Stratford East and Jan Ryan for UK Arts Productions
Cast includes
Rolan Bell, Joanna Francis, Delroy Atkins
Running time
2hrs 30mins
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