Get Up Stand Up! is the classic jukebox biopic musical, following the life of the legendary Bob Marley.
Indeed, for my generation – the kids born at the end of the twentieth century – this is exactly what Bob Marley is: a legend. We know his music, but very little about the man himself. And, in this respect, Get Up Stand Up! excelled. Lee Hall’s book details all the key events of Marley’s life: his uniting with The Wailers, his meeting his wife Rita, his surviving an assassination attempt in 1976, his converting to Rastafarianism and his later moving to London. Hall’s book was particularly effective in humanising Marley, depicting him as an eminently flawed figure: from dealing with accusations that he’d sold out to the white man to his using Rastafarianism as justification for sleeping with multiple women.
Indeed, the best musical numbers in the production were those that explored the changing relationship of Bob Marley (played by Arinze Kene) and Rita (played by Gabrielle Brooks). At the beginning of their relationship, Kene and Brooks sang a duet of Is This Love? beautifully arranging the song to communicate their blossoming feelings for each other. In Brooks’ mouth, the words “Of my single bed” suddenly became a comic reflection on Marley’s initial lack of means to support Rita. Later in the musical, after Marley asked Rita to take in a couple of children he had with other women, Kene and Brooks combined their voices in a powerful rendition of No Woman, No Cry – Brooks powerfully and movingly using her vocals to convey the pain felt by Rita.
However, from the beginning, it was made clear that this was a biopic with a twist, as Kene opened the play by declaring that, “This is not history. This is his story because the only truth is Jah.” Of course, all biopics are necessarily edited, picking the parts of a person’s life that can be shaped into a dramatically interesting narrative. Get Up Stand Up!, however, seemed specifically concerned with answering the question of why Bob Marley’s story is so important to tell today – in particular, the political importance of his life.
Throughout, the musical highlighted the political events occurring in the background of Bob Marley’s private life. Images of documents detailing the CIA’s involvement in Jamaica’s politics, as well as the perceived threat of Bob Marley alongside Fred Hampton and Angela Davis, were projected across the set. The infamous moment that Michael Manley and Edward Seaga joined hands at the One Love Peace Concert was also staged. For audiences unfamiliar with this history, large cable cases with screens fitted into their lids were helpfully used to inform the audience of the exact date of these historical events.
To some extent, however, I felt that there was a dislocation between the first and second acts. While Act One seemed primarily interested in Bob Marley’s personal life, Act Two became more explicitly political. Act Two saw, for example, Kene delivering a powerful speech questioning whether Jamaican people, even though they had been granted freedom from slavery, were actually free or not, before singing a rendition of Redemption Song. The musical also concluded with a stirring arrangement of Get Up Stand Up! performed by the company with images of contemporary political struggles, such as the climate crisis and fight for justice for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, projected onto the set. Perhaps the difference between Act One and Two reflected the development of Bob Marley himself from a person to political icon. However, I did sometimes get the impression that the intent of the musical – whether to detail the life of Bob Marley or to be a general call to political action – was slightly confused.
Nevertheless, Get Up Stand Up! is an absolute tour de force. Gabrielle Brooks’ vocals were powerful and moving throughout and Arinze Kene… Well, his performance was flawless. He completely embodied Bob Marley without employing a single element of caricature. I was particularly moved by his heartfelt performance of One Love, but, in general, the fact that he never left the stage was an incredible athletic feat. I also enjoyed Chloe Lamford’s set design, entirely consisting of radios and sound systems, as well as the appearance of casual informality in Shelley Maxwell’s choreography. All these elements combined to foreground the cast’s exceptional performances of Bob Marley’s music – which, at the end of the day, is really what audiences are there for.
Booking for Get Up Stand Up! is currently open until 3rd April 2022. Book tickets and find out more here.