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Trenchtown comes to the West End, with Arinzé Kene as the iconic reggae superstar

"Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds." To some, Bob Marley is the dreadlocked king of reggae, writer of feel-good hits such as "One Love" and "Three Little Birds" - but there was far more to his life than that. Abandoned by his father and shoved from pillar to post in his youth, he formed a bond with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, the trio hoping to escape the ghetto with the help of music - although Bob probably wouldn't have minded giving a football career a shot if that hadn't worked out.

Marley met and married Rita Anderson, though he had something of a wandering eye; Miss Jamaica (and future Miss World) Cindy Breakspeare being one of many other women to come in and out of his life. In spite of civil war, political unrest, and an assassination attempt, the re-christened Bob Marley and the Wailers worked their way to global superstardom - Bob himself becoming a figure of hope and leadership, even though he always denied having an interest in politics. He was more interested in performing for the people and living life according to his faith.

Somehow, Lee Hall's new musical manages to pack all of this (and more) into a 2 hours 40 minute running time, without it ever feeling too rushed or underdeveloped. True, it is a fairly whirlwind first act, taking in the key moments of Bob's childhood in the 50s and ending in the ill-fated Smile Jamaica peace concert that prompted his two-year exile. It's a testament to how much he crammed into his short life that certain aspects of the story have to be trimmed down or left out entirely.

The informal, rabble-rousing start to the show is just the shake-up the West End needs - as is the subject matter. What other musical could bring mentions of Marcus Garvey, a love story, and a gig-like atmosphere together and make something cohesive out of it? There are insidious hints at the turmoil Marley may have felt as a biracial man, growing up in Jamaica as it finally gained its independence from Britain, and then trying to find his feet in the music industry.

Hall's script calls for a mixture of musical theatre style numbers with straight concert performances: a tack that works well in the jukebox musical sub-genre. Not only does it mean there should be a tangible narrative arc, but it also allows the audience to feel involved in events taking place onstage. Clint Dyer's direction plays up to this nicely, with the whole company steadily making their way onto the stage for big gig songs to gee up the crowd (not that it takes much!), and clever staging pushing the storytelling to the fore in other scenes.

Quite a selection of tracks have made the cut, so there's something for everyone - both casual and more hard-core fans should be satisfied with the choices. The musical theatre style performance also gives other characters a voice, allowing for some imaginative choices to be made. It's rather fitting that Cindy (Shanay Holmes) takes the lead on Waiting In Vain (a song thought to have been written about her), as she comes to the realisation that she's never going to have a 'normal' life with Bob.

Daniel Bailey makes his presence felt as Lee "Scratch" Perry in the rowdy and energetic Punky Reggae Party, and Natey Jones, Jackie Simpson and Arinzé Kene deal solely in sweet harmonies in the early days of The Wailers. Gabrielle Brooks' performance of "No Woman No Cry" threatens to steal the show, as Rita tries to move on with her life without Bob, but it is quickly relegated by Kene's extraordinary rendition of "Redemption Song". A performance made all the more emotive by impromptu audience participation - if that doesn't get the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end then nothing ever will.

Arinzé Kene's entire performance is nothing short of phenomenal; he faithfully pays tribute to his hero without ever straying into impersonation territory - rather than mimicking the music legend, Kene becomes him. Helped visually, it must be said, by some excellent hair pieces from Campbell Young Associates.

Quite simply put, this is the best new jukebox musical in years. It ticks all the boxes you need for a good night out: it's entertaining, there's an emotional heart, the musical performances are superb, and it has something to say. You know you're onto a winner when the audience needs no invitation to get on their feet for the final few songs. Is this love? I rather think it is.

Get Up, Stand Up! is at the Lyric Theatre until 3 April 2022

Picture credit: Craig Sugden

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From This Author - Debbie Gilpin