'The Big Life' review – the landmark ska musical gets a joyfully big-hearted revival

Read our review of The Big Life, directed by Tinuke Craig, now in performances at Theatre Royal Stratford East to 30 March.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

What a glorious 20th-anniversary celebration for Paul Sirett and Paul Joseph’s ska musical The Big Life, which returns to the venue where it premiered, Theatre Royal Stratford East, in a vibrant and joyfully big-hearted revival from Tinuke Craig.

Aptly for this multicultural work, it fuses together the premise of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost with the story of arrivals from the West Indies in 1948. The latter is perhaps more widely understood now thanks to the horrific Windrush Scandal, plus a concurrent cluster of dramatisations like the National Theatre’s adaptation of novel Small Island (which gets a namecheck here).

But, even if the bare bones of the story are familiar – Caribbean immigrants invited to the “motherland”, hopeful of pursuing good careers, but instead subject to racist abuse and forced into menial jobs – The Big Life patiently draws us into the lives of these individuals, and juxtaposes the hardship with music, laughter and love.

Ferdy, Bernie, Dennis and Lennie agree to give up the distraction of women for three years, and are bet £5 each by singer and ladies’ man Admiral that they’ll fail. Naturally, they’re soon driven to distraction by their attractive female housemates: landlady Zulieka, Bernie’s ex Sybil, her sister Mary, and friend Kathy.

Just like in a fantastical MGM musical, Jasmine Swan’s costumes assure us that these stubborn lovers will eventually get together: each wooing pair is dressed in matching colours. The gods are watching over them too, with Admiral doubling up as Eros, and a Windrush veteran who comments on the action from a theatre box turning out to be Aphrodite.

That commentator is riotously played by Tameka Empson, who has also worked with Sirett on smartly updating the script. Her impish grandmother basically provides a bonus stand-up show, riffing on everything from sex work and church-going to Will Smith. She voices the serious messages too: that Caribbean people are an intrinsic part of English history, that they propped up the NHS, and yet they paid an unthinkable price.

Although mostly favouring a buoyant slapstick style, using almost cartoonish physical comedy in its uproarious battle of the sexes, the show itself also has moments of pathos. After academic Ferdy, when seeking out a professor he admires, is cruelly turned away by a bigoted secretary, Ashley Samuels nails his pained ballad about shattered faith.

Likewise Rachel John does impressive work to make her tiny subplot – Zulieka feels guilty because she can’t afford to go home to see her sick father – land with such force. It’s these details that turn generalised social history into impactful human drama.

But The Big Life is mainly a great big party of a show. Cultural differences are often a source of humour, such as the British fixation on queuing, and there are some sharp gags. When Zulieka tuts about the detritus on his overalls, factory worker Ferdy protests “It’s only asbestos!”. Karl Queensborough’s Lennie and Kahlid Daley’s Dennis are a dynamite double act, and Leanne Henlon’s Mary is memorably awkward in her seduction efforts.

The fantastic cast also tears into Joseph’s roof-raising score. John stops the show with a soulful spiritual, Nathanael Campbell’s Bernie and Gabrielle Brookes’s Sybil pine for one another in an aching bluesy duet, Juliet Agnes’s Kathy relishes her Aretha-esque girl-power moment, and Danny Bailey sets hearts a-flutter with his cheeky crooning.

It’s a shame that Swan’s set design is so clunky in its transitions, and although I can see the point she’s making by cramming the cast into a tiny living space, it severely limits their performances. The show’s three-hour run-time is also somewhat indulgent. But it’s hard to begrudge it when you’re having such a blast. Exuberant, feel-good entertainment.

The Big Life is at Theatre Royal Stratford East through 30 March. Book The Big Life tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: The Big Life (Photo by Mark Senior)

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