Budding musician Ivan leaves the countryside for the buzz of Kingston, in this exuberant stage adaptation of Perry Henzell’s 1972 film. After a lukewarm reception from his mother and local music mogul Hilton, Ivan seeks employment in the church, and later, the marijuana trade, while struggling to get his music heard. Resorting to increasingly criminal measures, he's hunted by both fans and police.
The space is owned so confidently by the cast of this welcome revival that breaking into song never feels unnatural, and the onstage band is sensational. There is a genuine sense that song is the only way to really express the plight of the characters. Special mention must go to Marlon King, playing Ivanhoe’s partner in crime, Pedro. An incredibly evocative singing voice coupled with the most soothing Patois brings his character to the forefront.
The real appeal of Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid’s direction is to have cast members loitering on stage throughout. The collected reactions of all the characters, all the time, enhance the drama tenfold. When Ivan is beaten by the police, there's a collective sense of concern; when the police search the neighbourhood, collective dismissal; and always the thrill that life is going on around, and interfering with, the central action. The choreography is lively, while the set is low-key, mostly Red-Stripe crates and the band’s equipment, but the cast create slums, studios and police stations with ease and flair.
When casting the film, it was said that Jimmy Cliff was perfect because he could be both angel and demon. Matt Henry’s Ivan certainly achieves the former, but some of the demon is lost. Indeed, if there is any criticism of this otherwise excellent adaptation, it's that in all the colour, comedy and celebration, the menace and grime of Kingston street life is absent, as are the ambiguities of Ivan’s actions. That said, the achievement of bringing this gripping story, and this unique spirit back to the stage is huge; I have never seen an audience having so much fun.