You need to be pretty fluent in Jamaican patois to wring every ounce of nuance out of Perry Henzell’s reggae musical The Harder They Come but do not let that put you off this new production by the Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Based on a true story, the show follows the fortunes of country boy Ivan who moves to Kingston after the death of his grandmother. A menial job sweeping the floor of his local church brings him into contact with the Preacher and his ward Elsa. Crucially it also gets him a leading role in the choir and, through them, a meeting with record producer Hilton.
When Hilton makes it clear that as the performer Ivan will only get a tiny cut of each of the records he makes he is determined to go it alone as producer and owner of his own record label, turning to crime to provide the funds. But along the way he kills two policemen and from then on this West Indian morality tale can only have one ending.
Most of the songs are classics and (Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher, The Harder They Come and You Can Get It If You Really Want are vivaciously foot tapping stuff and classic reggae. The quieter numbers help carry the story on with Many Rivers to Cross and Sittin’ In Limbo providing a welcome contrast. Pressure Drop, underlining the heat of the manhunt, helps emphasise the underlying corruption that helped turn Ivan to crime.
Matthew J Henry gives a stunning central performance as Ivan, at first a sympathetic figure who wins over both audience and the girl but gradually estranges himself from both as his gangsta persona takes over and he becomes more inclined the use his guns to win the argument despite a growing following for his music.
Originally filmed in 1972 and starring Jimmy Cliff as Ivan, The Harder They Come has been steadily winning friends since it was first performed on stage in 2006. Sharper and tighter now at 110 minutes in length instead of the original two and a half hours, a more accessible dialogue would have made some of the plot easier to follow but the classic songs speak for themselves and the exuberance of the performers make this current tour a must see.