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Review: The Big Life - The Ska Musical (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Review by Daz Gale


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

In a week of big openings in the West End, you may need to venture out into East London to find a surprising contender for the best show of the week. It may not star Matt Smith or be set in the underworld but The Big Life may just have pipped them to that title – and here’s why.



Based on Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost, The Big Life takes that premise and turns its attention to the Windrush generation to tell a joyful and uplifting story. It sees four men in the 1950s arrive in London from the West Indies with optimism and high expectations for their new life. Determined to devote their focuses on their future in London, they make a decision to swear off women for three years, but when each of them in turn falls for one of four women, would that be a decision they are able to keep – especially when Cupid and the Goddess of Love herself get involved.

 

The musical premiered in 2004 at Theatre Royal Stratford East. That production then transferred to the West End the following year where it was nominated for Best New Musical at the Oliviers. Rather fittingly, it now returns to its original home at Theatre Royal Stratford East to celebrate its 20th anniversary.



Written by Paul Sirett and Tameka Empson, The Big Life hooks you in from the opening moments, thanks To Tameka’s own starring role (more on that later). From then on, the laughs come thick and fast as does the complete joy that fills every second of this wonderful show. Brilliantly crafted, Paul and Tameka’s writing lets the story unfold naturally, making sure the comedy packs a punch but never detracts from the narrative. Another testament to the skill of the writing are in the well-rounded characterisations and fabulously realised dynamics between differing relationships.

 

While this is a show determined to put a smile on your face from start to finish, that isn’t to say this musical lacks substance with a more serious theme playing out as characters encounter racism in their attempts to build a new life. An inspired choice to update elements to the script to reflect events that have transpired since making the narrative even more poignant and showing how multi-layered and intelligent The Big Life is. A particularly moving speech about Windrush from Tameka Empson towards the show’s climax shifts the tone completely and is incredibly powerful in its delivery.



Billed as The Ska Musical, the music Is as you would expect. While ska might not be a personal favourite style of music for me, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the infectious songs adorning this show. Paul Joseph’s music and Paul Sirett’s lyrics created pure musical joy with maddeningly catchy melodies blending with repetitive and at times delightfully nonsensical lyrics. Huge early number ‘In Inglan set the tone perfectly with standouts including the fantastic ‘W.O.M.A.N’ and the increasingly bonkers ‘Better Than You’. Closing number ‘Be Good To Yourself’ ends the evening on a high, and if you don’t come out of The Big Life with ‘You Do It’ whirring around your head, you’re a stronger person than me.


Tinuke Craig’s inspired direction ensures the stage (and, spoiler alert, beyond it into the audience) bursts with life with sheer exuberance. Jasmine Swan’s stunning set design feels far bigger than the relatively intimate space with some great set pieces throughout, blended to perfection with Elliot Griggs’ striking lighting. One of the most impressive elements in a consistently strong show is in Ingrid Mackinnon’s exceptional choreography, tying together with Craig’s direction to amplify every musical number in a visually stimulating way.



The production of The Big Life may be flawless in every respect and, thankfully, so are the cast. Very much an ensemble piece with each individual getting their own moment in the spotlight but refreshingly stepping back to create multiple groups. Karl Queensborough, Khalid Daley, Ashley Samuels and Nathaneal Campbell are all remarkable as Lennie, Dennis, Ferdy and Bernie, bringing a kind of organised chaos to the proceedings in performances that are easy to love. The four women they find themselves falling for are similar in that respect so get to branch out individually slightly more. Juliet Agnes, Gabrielle Brooks and Leanne Henlon are all mind-blowingly good as Kathy, Sybil and Mary with top vocals and a strong stage presence collectively and individually.

 

Rachel John once again proves what a force she is in this industry with a knockout performance as Zulieka – a role which takes a back seat when needed only to dominate in other moments in a mesmerizingly understated and note-perfect portrayal. Daniel Bailey is a standout as Admiral/Eros with a cheeky characterisation that never fails to make you beam whenever he does even the slightest movement on stage. From the vocals to the dancing to the pure comedy of it all, he really did hold his own when up against an absolute scene-stealer of a performer…



I am, of course, referring to Tameka Empson. Having co-written the show and starred in it 20 years ago, she clearly has a close connection to the show and this time, she has truly upped the ante. In her brief stage time as Mrs Aphrodite, Tameka is a literal goddess, knocking everybody’s socks off with one simple twirl. However, it is her time off the stage that truly steals the scenes every single time. From the moment, she first appears in a box in the audience, she has the audience in the palm of her hands. With some of the best one-liners I have heard in the theatre in a long time. I was crying from laughter at this character that added an extra layer to the musical and set the tone before anyone had even walked on to the stage.

 

I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Big Life. I am certain it wasn’t this. I can’t remember the last time I smiled so much in a theatre with this production perfectly embodying the true magic of theatre and all of the joy it can bring. Though it is full of laughs, it also comes with a serious message, managing to strike the balance between light-hearted and heavier topics with ease. With every element faultless in its approach, I couldn’t have loved The Big Life more if I tried. Last time this show was in Stratford, it found itself transferring to the West End. With a production this phenomenal, don’t be surprised if this one does the same.



The Big Life plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 30th March. Tickets from www.stratfordeast.com

 

Photos by Mark Senior

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