The Big Life

Theatre Royal, Stratford East

(2004)

Review by Jackie Fletcher

As retiring artistic director Philip Hedley writes in the programme, the Theatre Royal has a long, long tradition of innovative musicals dating back to Oh! What a Lovely War and Fings Ain't What They Used to Be in the 'sixties. But it wasn't until 1996 after the great artistic and financial success of Five Guys Named Mo, that they decided to create a new musical genre using the 'extraordinary range of musical forms which are continually evolving and fusing' in urban communities. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating The Big Life is a triumph, remarkable even among so much exceptional musical theatre developed and nurtured at the Theatre Royal over the last fifteen years. It is a veritable tour de force.

The Big Life is subtitled 'the ska musical', but it pays homage to a whole range of musical styles recognisable from the fifties and sixties and brought to these shores by Afro-Caribbean immigrants. It is an apt illustration of the debt we own to those who sailed for these cold, grey climes and enlivened our blanched, British, post-war culture of chip suppers and hot-water bottles.

The story is set in 1956 and it starts on board the Windrush, the ship that shuttled back and forth between the Caribbean and Southampton with its cargoes of hopefuls. The cast of characters have great expectations of England, and they have personal aspirations. Ferdy is writing a book on the Stoics for his PhD and he has an invitation from an admired English professor. Bernie has a degree in engineering and sees a great future ahead for him and fiancée Sybil, both being graduates of the University of the West Indies. Lennie is looking for a job as a mechanic; he's a wizard with cars, and Dennis is the innocent, the one with the slightly outmoded, slightly too large suit and the pork-pie hat, he has the medal awarded posthumously to his brother, who died as an RAF pilot in World War II. Dennis is sure that when he shows the English the medal he will be welcomed heartily.

Naturally, as we all recognise with dramatic irony, they are going to be disappointed. They end up as labourers, bus conductors and workers on the Underground and Dennis the Innocent is the one who tramps the streets day after day applying for jobs only to hear that it has just be filled. The ladies fare somewhat better using their nursing qualifications to find employment in the brand new NHS. But, this is a ska musical not a blaxploitation movie; it's a celebration of the triumph of the spirit. In spite of hard graft their resilience shines through in the vibrant music and the scintillating humour.

Moreover, the plot rapidly takes a twist and turns to matters of love. While on board ship Bernie and Sybil have a tiff and break off their engagement. Ferdy persuades the others that in order to prosper they must dedicate their lives for three years to work and study; leisure pursuits will be eschewed including women. Reluctantly, the four all swear to abide by Ferdy's code, and so, with a deft turn we are in the realm of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (and far more engaging than Brannagh's embarrassing film version). We have four hot-blooded young squires sworn to celibacy and four sweet and sexy damsels living in close proximity in the same B&B. Wow! Secure your seat belts and batten down the hatches for the battle of the sexes that ensues.

For the main part The Big Life is a multiple love story. From one of the boxes, during scene changes, Mrs Aphrodite, an opinionated Jamaican matron in blue-feather hat, regales us with delightfully outspoken cheek, commenting on the action on stage and making a major contribution to the laughter. Two other characters represent the opposing poles of possibilities, places of retreat for the lonely soul, the priestly and the pagan: the one is an evangelical minister, adrift in the mists of Piccadilly, and the other a rascally, guitar-toting musician, the shaman figure, a 'black Orpheus'.

This is an all-star, dream-team cast, expertly directed by Clint Dyer with an eye for detail, slick pacing and snappy dialogue. The music and the choreography will make your blood bop. If some savvey impresario doesn't pick this up, put it in a West End theatre, take it on tour and even to Broadway, where it will shine in that capital city of musicals, then I swear never to set foot in the West End again for sheer ire.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue