Whether you’re a lifelong Bob Marley fan or a complete newcomer to the man’s work, One Love at Birmingham Rep is an accessible and thoroughly enjoyable ode to the world’s best-loved Rastafarian, blending biography and musical to tell one incredible life story.
Written and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the show chronicles key events in Marley’s life, from the assassination attempt at his home in Kingston, to the release of seminal album Exodus, and culminating in the now-famous One Love concert. And for those fearing this is just a jukebox musical, don’t worry; with rivalry, infidelity, and a country on the brink of civil war, there’s more than enough meat to this story to keep your attention between jams. The play divides the action between England, where reggae meets the nascent punk movement, and an increasingly politically volatile Jamaica, where Marley’s music gives the people hope. By the time he convinces the prime minister and his opponent to shake hands on stage, there’s no doubt about it; Bob Marley is Jamaica.
Even if you’re not a huge fan of reggae, the songs are great, both moving the story forward and imbuing the show with more than a little verve. And it has to be said, Mitchell Brunings sounds exactly like the great man himself.
But this is a musical, not a reggae gig, and the songs can only be as strong as the performances that accompany them. Luckily, the company brings its A-game. Brunings vanishes into the role of Marley, bringing a relaxed charm to the part even in the moments when he is being less than likeable, while Alexia Khadime damn-near steals the show as Rita, Bob’s wife and conscience. One of the high points of the entire production is an emotional scene between the two, as they reflect on their tumultuous life together while singing ‘No Woman, No Cry.’
The supporting cast are no slouches either; Newtion Matthews as Bunny Wailer, Adrian Irvine as PM Michael Manley and Alex Robertson as Island Records exec Chris Blackwell all make strong impressions despite relatively limited stage time. And a special mention must go to Cat Simmons as “Miss Jamaica” Cindy Breakspeare, who plays the home-wrecker with such vulnerability you can’t quite bring yourself to hate her.
If the show piques your interest, The Rep is also running an exhibition commemorating and celebrating Marley’s musical and cultural legacy. One Love ended its world premiere with a singalong encore of ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ and ‘One Love’ and continued the fun outside with a live reggae set, ensuring there would be more than a few Marley converts walking away that night.