Studying the board at the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square last week, my friend asked me what ‘The Big Life’ was about. Before I had chance to answer, a woman butted-in enthusiastically and said “It’s terrific. I saw it last week and I’m definitely going again.” Praise indeed. So, my expectations were naturally high.
This show has been four and a half years in the making by the company at The Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s not only been in workshop, but has already had 2 full runs at the Theatre Royal – first in April 2004 and staged again recently in February this year. It’s no coincidence that the show has transferred from Stratford to the West End, because the Theatre Royal has given birth to a string of more than 20 productions which have gone on to achieve success and acclaim in the West End.
The storyline is based on Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, but if you’re not into Shakespeare you needn’t worry a jot because the similarity (in terms of action and dialogue) really ends there.
In the first scene, we meet a group of West Indian immigrants on the deck of the ‘Empire Windrush’, the ship which, from 1948 onwards, brought large numbers of West Indians to England with high expectations of a better life. On board, a group of men promise that they will abstain from women and drink, and study and work hard to make something of their lives. However, given the power of young love (or should that be ‘lust’), and the proximity of vivacious young women in the boarding house in which the eventually fetch up, it’s a promise that’s destined to fail sooner rather than later.
And that’s really the story in a nutshell. We do see some of the trials which West Indian immigrants had to face – the problem of finding accommodation and jobs, as well as the tedium of unfulfilling work. And, in a moving as well as humorous scene, we glimpse the spectre of racial prejudice when one of the immigrants tries to contact a professor at a University. But hardship and racial prejudice is not really what this show is about.
However, we do get more of an insight into West Indian culture and opinion through the comments of Mrs Aphrodite – brilliantly played by Taemka Empson – who sits in a box in the auditorium and gives forth on all manner of subjects (relevant and irrelevant) during the scene changes. Although it’s a little difficult to follow everything she says, her delivery and props alone had many people howling with laughter.
Having seen a number of glitzy and grotesquely expensive musicals in the past, ‘The Big Life’ takes a refreshingly different approach to what matters in a musical production. The staging is economic and functional but effective, putting the focus clearly on the cast and the musicians, which is where it rightly belongs. My only criticism of the staging is that the railing at the front of the stage during the scene on board the ‘Empire Windrush’ was a little too high and tended to irritatingly obscure vision from the stalls. But that aside, there’s everything in the set which is essential to the action, without unnecessary funds being spent on glitz. And that allows the audience to simply enjoy the performances, which they certainly did.
Set at some altitude on a platform at the back of the stage, a band of 6 gifted musicians – in white suits with angels wings - keeps the music bounding along at a considerable and enjoyable pace – with a couple of exceptions when some fine ballads replace the ska influences in the music. The arrangements are finely honed, well-balanced and foot-tapping. There are some detectable jazz and blues influences too and, overall, the score is far better than I’ve heard at other musicals recently, and the high standard is maintained pretty much throughout. And the music of course is the essential ingredient in the vibrant and rhythmic dancing, eminently well choreographed by Jason Pennycooke who also plays Admiral, one of the main roles.
The excellent ensemble cast leaves us in no doubt that they’re enjoying and committed to what they are doing, but there’s clear evidence of gifted direction (from Clint Dyer) which gives room for the cast to enjoy their roles, while keeping the performances tight and focused.
Eavesdropping on reactions from other members of the audience when I was leaving the theatre, I heard considerable praise. “What did you think of it, Rosemary?”, said one woman to her friend. “Excellent”, was the reply. And with almost the entire audience giving a standing ovation at the end of the show, you really can’t be more positive than that!
What the critics had to say.....
NICK CURTIS for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Cheery, agreeable but undemanding." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "One of the exhilarating things about The Big Life is that it is joyous while depicting - without either mitigation or rancour - the experience of first-generation Caribbean immigrants." BRIAN LOGAN for THE GUARDIAN says, "Infectiously energetic and big-hearted." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, " A terrific show." JEREMY KINGSTON says, "Energy and exuberance are what the show displays in abundance."
The Following review from one of our readers
Lesley Agbarakwe (July 2005)
I have seen many plays at many theatres but have never felt passionate enough to send in a review. However, The Big Life is an exception.
The first I heard of this fantastic performance, it was showing at Stratford. Very shortly after, I saw a very colourful flier supplied with a newspaper and it sounded just my kinda thing. My first thought was "How come I haven't heard about this before!??!*" Anyway, by the time I had rallied friends around it had moved to central london, but we were keen to follow. And it was more than worth the journey!!!
Until I read Peter Brown's review I hadn't even caught onto the fact that only a few simple props are used throughout and I totally agree when he says this serves perfectly to ensure more focus is therefore put on the brilliant performances of the energetic cast. Being an african myself I can relate to some of the characteristics and phrases used by Zulita and when I went to see it a second time, this time taking my sister, she too laughed at the familiarity of Zulita's actions.
Cupid too was lots of fun especially with his surprise entrance at one point in the performance, very clever. We were captivated with all the vigorous dancing, whining, and vibrant songs, and were surprised that there was no CD on sale.
The guys, the girls, the lady up in the box....all serve to make this masterpiece an uplifting experience!! I could watch it over and over again and am on a mission to spread the word!