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Bob Marley

by on 7 August 2022

Truthful Musicianship

Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical

by Bob Marley, book by Lee Hall

Playful Productions with Stage Play and Cedella Marley at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, until 8th January 2023, then on UK and international tour

Jazz and pop critic, Vince Francis talks to Michael Duke, who plays Bob Marley in the West End musical Get Up, Stand Up!  

Interview by Vince Francis

Once in a while, an opportunity arises that should be grasped firmly with both hands.  Sometimes, the gods conspire to make that opportunity a bar of soap and the attempt to grasp it almost comical.   Thus it was with the meeting with the actor, producer and musician Michael Duke, currently playing Bob Marley in the production of  Get Up, Stand Up at the West End’s Lyric Theatre.  Michael’s availability was understandably limited, and I had an obligation that couldn’t be moved.  I’m therefore extremely grateful to those who worked to make it happen.

So, for those who may be unfamiliar, Bob Marley was probably the most influential reggae musician to come out of the home of reggae, Jamaica.  Reggae – the word has its roots in the patois word for ‘ragged’ – is a genre of music which evolved from origins in Trinidadian Calypso, through other popular sub-genres, such as Mento, Dance Hall and Ska, for which, by the way, the Jamaican pronunciation is “Skya”, to rhyme with the “Tia” in “Tia Maria”. 

Reggae came to prominence in the UK during the sixties and it proved highly influential throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, when, in addition to established Jamaican artists, the likes of Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, UB40 and the Police, among many, many others tapped into its infectious rhythmic structures.

The show documents Bob Marley’s life and work and might therefore be mistaken for just another in the line of such shows, including Buddy and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, but, as Michael himself observes; “Don’t come to this show with any preconceived ideas.  It’s more than a juke-box musical.”  Having seen it, I’m inclined to agree.  The show takes a truly objective look at Bob Marley, celebrating the music, for sure, but it doesn’t shy away from Marley’s darker side, his sometimes cavalier approach to his relationship with his wife, Rita, (beautifully played by the wonderful Gabrielle Brook, by the way), his single-mindedness, or his attempt at political activism.

I was keen to understand a bit more about Michael and appreciated his openness in this regard.   A ten-minute slot had been allocated and I was keen to get as much as possible out of it.  On arrival on stage, I was greeted warmly by Michael and we agreed on a swift canter through his background, Bob Marley’s character and the show generally.  I have encapsulated the essence of our chat below.

VF:  Are you a local lad?

MD: Yes, London.  I was born and brought up in Camberwell, in South-east London.

VF: So how did you get involved with the performing arts?

MD: When I was at school, I went to a Saturday theatre school, Italia Conti.  I loved it and I liked the people there.

VF: I see you were in Lion King (Michael played Simba at age eleven) – how was that?
MD: It was wonderful, great.  It just made me think “This is what I want to do.”

VF: Looking through your credits, there’s a bunch of the big hitter musicals and then Inheritance, which seemed to be an entirely different.  What attracted you to that project? 

MD: I enjoy a challenge and plays are so different … 

VF: More words to learn, I guess …

MD:  … Exactly.  And you have to be so accurate with the script and the moves, or you can throw someone else off balance.  Keeps you focussed.

VF:  How aware were you of Bob Marley before the show?

MD:  Oh, very much aware.  My heritage is Jamaican and my parents loved his music – it was often playing at home, or around friends’ places.

VF: What about the whole political thing that he got involved with?

MD: I knew about the main elements of that part, I guess, like a lot of second-generation kids, but I didn’t know some of the detail.  It’s been good to be able to fill in some gaps.  [VF: I sympathised with that, being half-Irish.]

VF: Was there anything you found difficult about finding the character?

MD: Yes.  The accent.  Even though I’m from a Jamaican background, the accent you hear here in London is just a bit different from what you hear on the island – different inflections and phrases.  And, of course, the language has changed over there over time, too.  My accent is London, so it’s obvious when I go back, but some people have kept some of their accent and the Jamaicans can spot it instantly.

VF: Did anything surprise you about Bob Marley?

MD: Yes.  His association with what I guess we would call gangsters.  But then, when I thought about it, he would only have seen the person in front of him, if you know what I mean.  He’d only be concerned with how they interacted with him, that they were being honest and true.

VF: How did it feel taking over from Arinzé (Kene)?

MD: Absolutely fine.  It’s the way the show works, so I’m here until October and then someone else will come in.  There’s a touring version, too, and they rotate the cast as well.  [VF: The same applies to other roles in the show.]

VF: And what’s your next project?  I noticed that you have something planned for the Arts Depot – can you say a bit about that?

MD: Yes, I’ll be workshopping some ideas for performance around an idea that I have, but I don’t want to say too much at this stage. 

One to watch out for, I would think.  I wish Michael well for the rest of the run; I’m hoping to see it again before he departs.  I also wish him well for his future projects. 

Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical has extended booking until next January. The critically acclaimed production has been playing to sell-out ecstatic crowds since October last year at the Lyric Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue and it has just been nominated for four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical.

The show features some of Marley’s biggest hits, including Exodus, No Woman No Cry, Waiting in Vain, Three Little Birds, I Shot the Sheriff, Could You Be Loved, and a lovely acoustic version of Redemption Song.  There are many more.

I know I’m not officially reviewing the show here, but I have to say that Clint Dyer’s direction gives us a show which feels natural and truthful, and the musicianship of the cast is outstanding.  I think they’ve nailed it.  If you’re a fan of Marley, you will love it.  If you’re not, you will be.

Vince Francis, July 2022

Photography by Craig Sugden

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