First seen at Stratford Eastís Theatre Royal last April and now making history as the first-ever indigenously created musical about black British life to open in the West End, The Big Life also joyously embraces a slice of social history thatís as full of heart as it is also passionately full of art.
This is history literally in the making, on both sides of the footlights. While the show follows the arrival of a group of Caribbean immigrants to 1950s London, it spins something universal out of this particular story of immigration and assimilation. In the process, it addresses a (hopefully) multi-cultural audience with a story that speaks to us all.
But best of all, this is a new musical that is original on every score, not least its score: neither the story nor the music is recycled from a hit film or the pop past, but instead it vibrantly brings to fully inhabited (and completely uninhibited) life something fresh, unique and remarkable.
And like the recently opened Billy Elliot (that is, of course, based on a film), this is a British folk musical about real folk, and is likewise threaded through with a keen wit, exhilarating dancing, an intricately involving story and a truly terrific ensemble cast. But the wonderfully syncopated score of original melodies by debutante theatrical composer Paul Joseph (to book and lyrics by Paul Sirett that lovingly reinvigorate a classical structure borrowed lightly from Shakespeareís Loveís Labours Lost) is even better than that for Billy Elliot.
While the production values may be somewhat lower tech than those for Billy, Clint Dyerís slick and utterly sincere production is just as warm-hearted and big-spirited. It has retained all of the raw vigour it had at Stratford East, but added a sheen of real rigour, too, that make it one of the most uplifting shows in the West End.
Producer Bill Kenwright (who has also simultaneously transferred the Nationalís production of Elmina's Kitchen to the Garrick Theatre) is to be applauded for making the West End a more colourful place, in every sense.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following five star review dates from April 2004 and this production's original run at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
A big musical with an even bigger heart, The Big Life is that rare, challenging and invigorating thing: a British musical that isn't about cats, runaway trains or falling chandeliers in Paris Opera Houses, but a beautifully crafted, fictionalised story based on real life experiences and events that directly addresses an important chapter of Britain's own history without being preachy or earnest.
In the process, it emerges as the most authentic, joyous, heartfelt and moving new British musical of its kind since Blood Brothers. Developed through Stratford East's pioneering Musical Theatre Project, which last year brought the invigorating but dramatically incoherent Da Boyz to the stage, The Big Life is a massive step forward, both for the project itself and for the future of indigenous musical theatre: it proves that not only is there the will to find the talent to create it outside the narrow boxes that commercial theatre operates in, but also the solid craft to harness and develop it into something cohesive. It is, in its way, as revolutionary a moment as Jerry Springer - The Opera was last year at the National, with one key difference: this show isn't about American low-life but about the arrival of Caribbean immigrants in the UK that gives it a direct relevance and local resonance.
Paul Sirett's witty script, Paul Joseph's vibrant score, Clint Dyer's buoyant production, Jenny Tiramani's economical design, a tremendous onstage band led by Delroy Murray, and a superb acting ensemble, function as a magnificent musical theatre collaboration. All theatre is storytelling, and the smartest thing about this show is how quickly and vividly everyone works to establish its sense of time, place and plot. It begins aboard the Windrush, the ship that brought the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to Britain in 1948. Here we meet a set of characters who are looking forward to "the big life" that they hope awaits them in their new country.
Sirett cleverly adopts a classic Shakespearean device, taken from Love's Labour's Lost, to create an immediate tension as the men pledge to eschew the company of women for three years while they establish themselves. Of course, temptation (and a tap-dancing Eros that they meet at Piccadilly Circus) quickly comes their way.
In the battle-of-the-sexes comedy that follows, Sirett also shows them facing other challenges in their adopted land, from finding jobs and dealing with bus queues and, of course, the weather, to blatant racist encounters, but Paul Joseph's tunes keep it bright and light, embracing calypso and ska, soulful ballads and spiritual anthems. Meanwhile, a character called Mrs Aphrodite (Tameka Empson), keeps up a witty running commentary from the stage-side boxes between scenes that bring it up-to-date.
Though there are undeniably some rough edges to the proceedings - and a suddenly sentimental lurch towards the end that's a plot point too many - this is nevertheless an exciting and important musical. Everyone should beat a hasty path to Stratford East, not least West End producers seeking to find something that isn't a compilation pop show but something far, far richer.
- Mark Shenton