The Big Life is an appropriate name for Paul Sirett and Paul Joseph’s trailblazing Ska musical: the characters, and their voices, are big, bold and buoyant, and everyone positively oozes liveliness throughout Clint Dyer’s zesty production. The show opened at the Apollo last night, in front of an extremely appreciative audience, and Tom Bowtell was on hand to witness all the whooping.
The Big Life is a pioneering show about pioneers: it tells the story of the hope-filled Caribbean youngsters who arrived in England on the Windrush in the 1950s, and is itself the first musical set in a British black community to open in the West End. Taking its plot from the central conceit of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Big Life follows the adventures of the four men (Dennis, Bernie, Ferdy and Lennie) as they struggle to stick to their pledge not to drink or dally with ladies as they seek to maximise their chances of success in England. Having made this pledge, it is almost inevitable that the lads should find themselves living with four girls who turn out to be the loves of their lives.
All of this romantic jigger-pokery provides the cast with many opportunities to sing funky Ska numbers extolling the joys of love and bluesy songs about broken hearts and the frustrations of maintaining their celibacy. All the songs are backed by an angelically-clad orchestra, who look extremely cool as they sit above the action at the back of the stage. Mention must also be made of Jason Pennycooke’s dazzling, almost Michael Jackson-esque, choreography, with some of the sharpest moves being carried out by Pennycooke himself in his dual role as Eros and the louchely insouciant trickster Admiral.
As well as offering plenty of boisterous larks, The Big Life also interweaves more serious moments, reminding the audience of the bigotry that West Indians faced when they arrived in Britain 50 years ago. One scene, where an academic secretary spits out the words “know your place, Nigger”, is particularly shocking.
While The Big Life may be something new to West End audiences, it has actually been marinating nicely over at the Theatre Royal Stratford East for the last four and a half years and is one of a raft of shows to have emerged from the theatre which reflect the cultural diversity of the area. Following in the footsteps of shows such as Oh! What A Lovely War, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey and its spiritual predecessor, Clarke Peters’s Five Guys Named Moe, The Big Life is one of nearly 20 productions to have made the transfer from East Stratford to West End. Writing in the programme notes for last night’s production, Philip Hedley, the former artistic director of the Theatre Royal, points out that “the Theatre Royal can boast it has produced more new British plays from writers from the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia than any other British theatre” and celebrates “the glorious mixes of cultures” to be found in the work which continues to emerge from the theatre.
(Eagle-eyed readers will notice that this article has failed to mention the performance of the comedienne Tameka Empson, and her unique improvised role as the all-seeing Mrs Aphrodite in the show. I do this because I don’t want to spoil the surprise; but let’s just say that if you go and see The Big Life and find yourself sitting next to a lady wearing posh gloves and a blue hat, you should be very afraid…)