THE 1972 movie The Harder They Come not only threw the spotlight on the songwriting talent of Jimmy Cliff but on reggae music in general.
The story of a Jamaican rebel with a cause was soundtracked by classic Cliff songs You Can Get It If You Really Want It, Many Rivers To Cross, Rivers of Babylon and The Harder They Come.
As well as writing the tunes, he starred as Ivanhoe Martin, a country boy with his heart set on stardom as a singer amongst the bright lights of Kingston. Soon though, the realities of the music industry turn the ambitious youngster into an outlaw, his climb to the top of the charts matched by his rise in the most wanted list.
“We’d watch it every Christmas,” laughs Matthew Henry, who plays Ivanhoe in the stage production that opens in Nottingham tonight, prior to a major UK tour.
“My family are Jamaican and it was a film that was always shown at Christmas. We’d sit down and they’d say ‘let’s put a Jamaican film on.’”
It’s hardly It’s A Wonderful Life, is it?
“No. I like that as well.”
Despite the dark themes of drugs and violence, it’s a feelgood musical with a lot of audience participation, says Matthew.
“It is like a concert at times,” he says.
“People are up and dancing and singing along. And every night is different because you interact with the audience. In fact, as soon as they walk in to the auditorium they are involved. The actors greet them before they’ve taken their seats. Not as themselves but as their characters because it’s a wake for Ivanhoe Martin. That’s how it starts, then we go back and look at what happened to him.”
They have been rehearsing for the past month. For Matthew, it’s one of his biggest roles.
“It’s hard work for me because I am on stage virtually all of the time. Even when I’m not singing or speaking I’m in the background.”
And the story has some resonance with his own experiences.
“He was a country boy who came to town looking for fame and fortune as a musician. But it wasn’t that simple. It was like when I first moved to London from Birmingham. It’s an exciting big city but it’s a hard life.”
Birmingham? He doesn’t sound very Brummie.
“It was beaten out of me at drama school,” he laughs.
“I enrolled on a course in musical theatre and it’s where I learned to speak properly. Subconsciously they remove the accent so you are more of a blank canvas.”
Matthew was the understudy at the run in the West End, where he got to meet Cliff.
“He came on stage and sang with us for the finale. He came backstage to meet the cast and told us what a good job we were doing and how happy he was that his work was carrying on. He’s a chilled out Jamaican dude.”
He adds: “I’ve been using the film a lot. It’s got to be a true representation. I’ve got to add my own touch to the role, of course, but I listened to the way Jimmy sang the songs, his intonations, just trying to get that sound.
“Jamaican men have such a way of moving and speaking. I’ve been trying to capture those characteristics. It would be so easy for me to do a rude boy London character but that’s not the period, it’s way before the rapper personality emerged.”
The Harder They Come runs from tonight until May 22 at Nottingham Playhouse. For tickets, which range from £7.50 to £26.50, call 0115 941 9419 or book online atwww.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk