There’s a sequence in the second act of The Harder They Come at the Playhouse – bowing in the West End after two seasons at Theatre Royal Stratford East, and stints at the Barbican and in Birmingham – in which Rolan Bell as the country boy Ivan is beaten by police, rallies to sing a sotto voce version of the title song, translates it into a radio hit and emerges, like a butterfly from the chrysalis, as a full-blown gangsta rapper in snakeskin shoes and waistcoat, white cap and dark glasses.

The music and staging carry him through the dramatic twists and the stage pulsates with a common purpose. This is typical of a production that is not only a sardonic tribute to the songs and story of Jimmy Cliff and the music business in Kingston, Jamaica, but a brilliant improvement on Perry Henzell’s raw and casually compiled 1972 cult movie.

Applying the best of Brechtian staging principles, the show, written by Henzell himself (he died in late 2006), is a superb synthesis of story, music and performance, a celebration of Ivan’s life in the form of a Ni-Night ritual of mourning, and a harsh moral fable.

Some reviewers at the Barbican complained of the show being over-long. It has now been sharpened to two-and-a-half hours’ running time, with no surplus flesh on the Rasta rattle of bones. Rolan Bell is a genuine new star as Ivan, making his own way with his own music but caught up in the drugs racket and disastrously embracing the wrong sort of notoriety by killing two policemen. There can be no happy ending.

An exceptional cast includes Marlon King as the seen-it-all dreadlocked Pedro, Joanna Francis as Ivan’s girl Elsa, 1970s black theatre veteran Victor Romero Evans as the crazily possessed preacher – the “Jesus love” choir and their progress to a competition trophy is another beautifully worked through sequence – Marcus Powell as the corrupt record producer and Joy Mack as Ivan’s gently jigging, sadly resigned mother.

Directors Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid have arranged the action and choreography with stark simplicity around the onstage musicians, who lead us through the wonderful songs – “You Can Get It if You Really Want,” the poignant ballad “Many Rivers to Cross,” the gorgeous “Sitting in Limbo” and the policeman’s brutal “Pressure Drop” – with that irresistible reggae mix of lilting, reined-in rhythm, melancholic edge and driving beat.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from March 2008 and this production’s earlier run at the Barbican Theatre.

Perry Henzell’s 1972 masterpiece, The Harder They Come, which starred Jimmy Cliff, has been described as the first truly great Jamaican film. Namechecked in two songs by The Clash, its Do-It-Yourself ethos and anti-establishment stance has led many to praise its pioneering punk spirit.

This musical version of the piece was first staged in 2005 at Theatre Royal Stratford East, where it had two sell-out runs, and now audiences have a third chance to see the extravaganza, adapted by the late Henzell himself.

Upon seeing the Ultz-designed Kingston dance hall complete with skanking Jamaicans, you could be forgiven for expecting a feelgood exercise in ghetto tourism. Thankfully, the gritty reality is something altogether more exhilarating, and this has everything to do with the balance director Kerry Michael achieves between brutality and tenderness.

The story concerns the travails of one Ivanhoe Martin, a gauche young man from the sticks who arrives in the city with ideas of reggae stardom and consumer comforts. Given Rolan Bell’s angel-toned portrayal of the boy, this seems like an entirely reasonable ambition.

Working for Mensah Bediako’s prissy preacher turns out to be a stroke of luck when Ivan falls for the old man’s daughter, Joanna Francis’ delightful Elsa. He is, however, less fortunate when it comes to realising his dreams, as city corruption sees him turn to violence and drug dealing. Yet this smart, sassy and self-mocking show never glorifies gang culture.

Indeed, The Harder They Come is a satisfyingly complex musical that remains devout even while seeming profane; one of the most powerful scenes features Ivan telling Elsa’s insufferable father that “you don’t need a preacher to reach God”. There’s also a canny contrast of mood to enjoy, as when a choir trophy presentation that evokes memories of Grease morphs into a down and dirty dub reggae jam.

A top-notch band and some stirring vocal performances from an indecently talented cast make up for the slightly meagre narrative. At one point, the wall of melody issuing from the stage is barely believable. And any soundtrack that includes classics like Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want” can hardly lose. As with all the best musicals, the songs drive the action forward and never seem bolted on.

The grand finale sees the audience treat the players to a dancing ovation, as the show threatens to become an impromptu concert. If the Barbican house staff hadn’t turned the lights on, we’d still be there now.

- David Gavan (reviewed at the Barbican Theatre)