Review: One Love: The Bob Marley Musical (Birmingham Rep)

Kwame Kwei-Armah directs his own musical about the life of Bob Marley

Iconic reggae star Bob Marley is the subject of this new musical which premieres at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Using more than 20 of his songs, the production largely focuses on two years of Marley’s life – two very tumultuous years. In 1976, Marley was scheduled to headline the Smile Jamaica concert but just days beforehand he, his wife and his manager were shot and wounded. Determined not to be beaten, Marley went ahead with the concert and then flew to England, not returning to his home country until 15 months later.

Written and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose previous work Elmina’s Kitchen also premiered at Birmingham Rep in 2005, the production uses this short period of time to show us the struggles Marley faced in terms of his political and religious beliefs, his role in modern Jamaica and his family crises.

It also reveals just how ruthless Marley could be in his attempts to find fame and how, once he’d found it, his uncertainties around the responsibilities that come with celebrity.
Mitchell Brunings, who has also played the musician in the musical Marley in Baltimore, takes the lead role with confidence. Looking and sounding like Marley he also ensures the audience sees the multi-faceted humanity of the man.

Alexia Khadime plays wife Rita Marley with a gentle humility. Here is a woman who receives bullet wounds for her husband, fights to keep his children safe, knows he is unfaithful to her and yet still wants him to come home – so much so she travels to London to tell him so.

There’s plenty of humour in the irreverence of the Wailers – with both Newtion Matthews as Bunny Wailer and Jacade Simpson as Peter Tosh playing their roles with gusto.

Kwei-Armah places Marley firmly at the centre of the Jamaican political turmoil of this time and so the characters of both Prime Minister Michael Manley (played by Adrian Irvine) and Edward Seaga (Simeon Truby) are also part of the story. The culmination of the musical takes Marley back to Jamaica for his One Love concert in 1978 at which he persuaded both political leaders to clasp hands before the people.

Marley was to die just three years later of skin cancer at the age of 36 and Kwei Armah ensures the shadow of this early death is present by including a scene in which the musician shares his decision not to have an amputation operation on the toe where the cancer was first detected.
But despite the traumas and the dangers of the time, One Love is a musical as full of joy as it is of soul searching. Its soundtrack, featuring a host of Marley hits including "Punky Reggae Party", "Is This Love?", "Burnin’ and Lootin’", "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Get Up Stand Up", reminds us how fine a songwriter Marley was.

Designed by ULTZ and using projection by Duncan McLean, the set successfully takes the audience from Jamaican street riots to the rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and into the recording studios.

While Marley fans will undoubtedly be those most eager to see One Love, the show certainly isn’t restricted to reggae enthusiasts. Its social issues, family drama and music will appeal to a much wider audience.

One Love runs at the Birmingham Rep until 15 April.