One Love – The Bob Marley Musical continues at the Birmingham Rep until 15 April.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
It’s 72 years since the birth of an icon. Bob Marley has become synonymous with philosophies of peace, brotherhood, and unity. But what of the man? One Love is writer and director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s heartfelt tribute.
Kwei-Armah insists this isn’t a ‘singalong-a-Bob’, and to give it its due, despite the enormous number of extracts injected into the narrative, the show does prove greater than that.
There is certainly a great passion for storytelling showcased by a fantastic troupe of performers. The dialogue in itself is often lyrical and symbolic, and it is wonderful to hear the Jamaican Patois spoken with such pride and wit.
It’s ultimately frustrating then, that the narrative is a bit of a let-down. The arc lacks motivation and, possibly in its reverence for the great man, fails to develop its protagonist beyond the superficial.
Despite a soul-felt and sublimely-voiced performance by Mitchell Brunings, there is a lack of dimension to Marley.
Hailed as a visionary, and a global icon, he comes across as warm-hearted but bland, obtuse, often joyless.
The book’s surrounding characters are more of an enigma (Natey Jones in particular relishes his various personas, and Eric Kofi Abrefa (as Pablo) is always quietly engaging.
The music (artfully arranged and delivered by Phil Bateman and a live onstage band) seems to pop into his world without any build-up, and even Marley’s flaws are without too much consequence.
His wife (a tour-de-force of strength and sparkling vocals by Alexia Khadime) and children are easily brushed aside by the narrative, infidelities argued and resolved within a song. Forbidden love brews, but doesn’t really affect anything else.
Civil War is a consistent backdrop, but we don’t see how it consistently shapes Marley’s music, his philosophy. It just lacks the muscularity of Marley’s own lyrics. Even a scene where three prisoners are shot by militia in Marley’s presence is greeted with a ‘wrist-slap’ response.
It is only in the finale that the show truly redeems itself. Brunings seems to suddenly unleash a world of charisma, passion and integrity upon the audience and you can’t help but wonder if it might be that he is more at home as a front-man than in servitude to a script.
Suddenly we are on our feet, as he climbs through the front rows and reaches loving hands, messiah-like, to the dancing crowd we have become before him.
The dancers bring Coral Messam’s rootsy movements alive with even greater commitment than before, spurred on by the response.
The surrounding chants of ‘One Love’ feel connected, inspiring, and truly moving. We would follow this Marley quite happily, and it is maddening that this is the first time we have been allowed to connect to the central character.
Although One Love makes a brave attempt to understand a flawed hero and the world he inhabited, the book isn’t yet engaging enough to reflect him well.
The show does, however, function very well as a catalyst for further exploration, and many who have not been aware of Marley’s specific contributions and context will find it enlightening.
Those who know Marley’s world well will, if nothing else, be blown away by the musical tributes the cast and band provide.