Until seeing ‘The Harder They Come’ at the Playhouse this week, I was under the impression that the phrase ‘dancing in the aisles’ was strictly figurative. We’re British for goodness’ sake. How wrong I was.
For opening night at least, this latest revival of the 1970s classic film on stage seemed to break through even the stiffest of upper lips; it had, no word of a lie, everyone on their feet.
It follows the bittersweet journey of Ivan Martin (played by a completely enthralling Matthew J Henry) who moves to Kingston, Jamaica to become a star. Hard times force Ivan into drug dealing in order to support his music, so that just as his career takes off, he becomes a fugitive of the law, and a poster boy for standing up to corruption in bureaucracy. Aptly, for Nottingham, he is Robin Hood, with a joint and an infectious reggae beat.
The music is consistently superb. From the electrifying gospel classic ‘Higher and Higher’ to the limb twitching, toe tapping, good-lord-the-compulsion-to-dance-ing ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ – most recently heard on a Conservative campaign video (I wonder if our new Tory overlords government knew the anti-establishment history of the song when they chose it?) This was all facilitated by some truly magnificent performances: Alanna Leslie’s Elsa had an unwavering church-girl vulnerability, even in the biggest of numbers, which in turn appeared completely effortless. Similarly, despite appearing the foil at times, Pedro (Marlon King) rendered the most tender moment of the production in the heartfelt ‘Rivers of Babylon’.
In the protest era America of the early 70s it is easy to see why the story took off as it did, and it is clear that the anti-establishment, power to the people rhetoric still strikes a chord with a lot of today’s audience. Speaking to assistant director, Jo Melville, about this staggering audience reaction, she attributed it to the cast having fun in a show that they love, and letting the audience know about it. This just about epitomises the play’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. That is, the infectious enthusiasm of the cast and the score was a joy to behold, however saying that, at times the euphoria of the music seemed to come at the expense of some of the grittier characterisation and plot development, which could have been so very poignant for Nottingham particularly.
However, really I am glad that this production resisted the urge to preach, as a result I can say that I defy anyone to see ‘The Harder They Come’ and leave without a smile. Or better still, without dancing in the aisles.
By Victoria Urquhart