The sign on the door of the Barbican theatre warned: ‘This performance contains smoking, guns, a haze machine and intermittent loud music.’ Loud music – at a musical? Is that the theatrical equivalent of ‘Caution, contents may be hot?’ At first this made me laugh when I read it, but after some consideration I think this degree of detail in signage could be a good thing, indeed they could well have continued: ‘This performance contains alarming polyester trousers, some ineptly thrown stage punches and an unnecessary degree of exposition in the second half.’
Actually that’s possibly a tad harsh. I enjoyed the show, The Harder They Come, Theatre Royal Stratford East’s staging of the famous Jamaican film, a great deal.
A big hit at the original theatre in both 2006 and 2007 it has now been picked up by the Barb for this year’s BITE line up. Which is gladdening, as it's one of the most entertaining things I've seen at the Barbican in a good long while. I’ve never seen the film on which it is based but the plot, which unfolds in flashback, is classic rise-and-downfall stuff. Ivan, charismatically played by Rolan Bell, wants to make a go off it in the music business but his efforts in this direction are thwarted by the local Mr Big, who insists on owning the rights of his songs and soaking up any profits. So Ivan turns to the drug trade to fund his dreams. A tussle with the police leads to him becoming an outlaw, something of a celebrated rebel. But, of course, it can’t end well with him and it doesn’t.
The production is split very distinctly. In the first half we get one musical number after another – all superbly performed – but little in the way of plot bar Ivan’s attempts to woo Elsa, the Preacher’s daughter (this mainly involves a comic misunderstanding about an invite to go for ‘a ride’ on his bike). In the second half this ratio of plot to music flips completely, as if someone suddenly remembered that a story was in order and there is a rush to cram everything in before the curtain falls. So suddenly the songs give way to the story of Ivan’s climb to notoriety and subsequent fall. The audience is bombarded with police corruption, shootings and sickly babies to the point where it is slightly disorientating. Fortunately the production’s ramshackle energy and sense of celebration carries it over these rougher moments. The songs help a lot: Many Rivers To Cross, You Can Get It If You Really Want, Higher and Higher and, of course, the title track. As does the fact that both Bell and Joanna Francis, as Elsa, have excellent voices.
There are also plenty of nice touches that go some way to softening the often soulless Barbican space. As the audience file in, the cast are milling about, both onstage and off, in the stairwells and balconies and later, the police chief, orders the house lights up and starts to interrogate the audience. Oh and there was smoking and guns as promised, though the latter sounded like a kid's cap gun when it was fired, quite why we were deemed to need prior warning wasn't clear.
You’d have thought the Barb’s signage efforts could be better employed elsewhere in the building. A confusing place to navigate at the best of time, large sections had been roped off for some event or other, and it took me an age to find the friend I was supposed to meet as our usual rendevous point - the bar - was out of bounds.