Rolan Bell On ... His Reggae Education
Within weeks of making his professional debut, actor Rolan Bell was cast as Ivanhoe Martin, the aspiring singer who becomes an outlaw, in the stage version of The Harder They Come, based on the 1972 Jamaican film that starred Jimmy Cliff and introduced reggae to a worldwide audience. The musical premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East in April 2006 and, following rave reviews and two more limited sell-out seasons, transferred last month to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre. Bell has reprised his role as Ivan in all the show’s stagings to date.
My parents are from Jamaica and I was raised here in England with reggae music. It all started when I was around four or five with my mum constantly singing to me. I got a little reggae concert just about every day. I was the second oldest of three children at the time, and for some reason Mum picked me to explain all the meanings of the songs to. She would stop after every line and say this means this and that. I’ve been brainwashed into loving all the old school tunes.
My favourite then was Alton Ellis. I remember my mum buying a Jimmy Cliff album when I was about 13 so I started to listen to a lot more of him then. Jimmy has come to see the show. He seemed to really enjoy himself and was appreciative of what we’d done with the original.
I had seen the film of The Harder They Come years ago. During auditions, I was told to watch it again, just to refresh and, when I did, it all came back to me. From there, I knew this show was going to be something important. I think the film became such a cult classic because it was the first international hit movie out of Jamaica that hit the Western world and it was authentic. So Jamaicans as well as people who didn’t know about that culture could enjoy it. It was something very much to be proud of in that respect.
Our show was a big hit at Stratford East. At first, we didn’t know what to expect and we were shocked at how wild the audiences were and how much the show meant to so many people. They got so involved imaginatively and the warmth and energy they gave back to us was overwhelming, it really was. We’re used to that now. We have a lot of repeat visitors, people who’ve seen it three or four times. I met one person who’s seen it eight times already.
Nearly every song you hear in The Harder They Come was a hit in Jamaica or even internationally. And we have a great band that really understand how to play the music so that it soaks into everyone’s bones every night. When I’m on stage, I’m aware that there are people out there really feeling what’s being put out.
My huge family makes up about half the audience when they come down. They have all sorts of reactions. I have a younger sister that’s been a few times with her boyfriend and they start reciting lines from the show every time I see them. And my mum - even with the shy type of person she is - is the first one up in the audience dancing and giving me lots of hugs and kisses and everything. They are very proud.
- Rolan Bell was speaking to Terri Paddock
After two runs at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where it premiered in April 2006, and a month at the Barbican earlier this year, The Harder They Come opened at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre on 9 June 2008 (previews from 23 May). It’s currently booking through to 1 November. The stage version is written by Perry Henzell, the co-writer, director and producer of the original 1972 film who died in 2006. Kerry Michael and Dawn Reid direct.