The Big Life

Paul Sirret, music by Paul Joseph
Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
(2005)

Production photo

It seems ridiculous that The Big Life and Elmina's Kitchen are being highlighted as unique rarities to be championed and coveted as if their like has never been seen before. They may be the first Black British musical and straight play to appear in the West End but the designation seems naive. Although not British in origin, Porgy and Bess (though that had White writers), Five Guys Named Moe and the plays of August Wilson have been there long before and are by no means unique.

It is also unfair on these shows to judge them as no more than precursors of a theatrical revolution. With publicity like this, though, they will attract new audiences to the West End - but then so will David Schwimmer and Ewan MacGregor.

In some ways, The Big Life is marvellous and, in others, debutant director Clint Dyer displays remarkable naivety in his transfer of the show from the Theatre Royal, Stratford East to Shaftesbury Avenue.

First, let's praise the good stuff. The choreography created by Jason Pennycooke, also the best performer, is tremendous and makes the very most of the somewhat limited materials available.

He is helped by Paul Joseph's lively and sometimes very catchy music, which opens with a song with its roots in spirituals and progresses through soul to ska and even rock. There are regular reprises of the best riffs and songs such as the memorable We Do It which you might well leave the theatre humming.

The story is an updated version of Love's Labours Lost, transported into the harsh lives led by hopeful West Indian immigrants to London just after the Second World War. Their obsessions are what one might expect: the opposite sex, money - or more often its absence - and the harsh strangeness of their new lives. Underpinning their experiences of job hunting is the constant problem of racism.

The story of four men and four women failing to communicate their love is always predictable and subtlety is never on the agenda. They do, however, get their romantically and communally happy ending.

At each scene change, there is the bonus of a comic routine on masculine weakness delivered by the opinionated Mrs Aphrodite, perched in a Circle Box. She is played by TV star Tameka Empson from Three Non-Blondes and Lennie Henry. The connections between these interludes and activities on stage are at best tenuous.

The big technical problem with The Big Life is the sound balance. The angelic six-piece band are great but they are over-amplified. As a consequence, it is difficult to hear, let alone understand, many of the sung lines and matters are even worse when Mrs Aphrodite is delivering her often inaudible jokes.

Frequently, one is conscious of neighbours asking each other, "What did she say?" In addition, there is a further problem to which this contributes, in that the characterisation leaves uncertainty as to the identities and relationships of some of the putative lovers.

The energy and exuberance of the cast carry things along but they lack strength in depth. There are some good performances in addition to that of the multi-talented Pennycooke. Marcus Powell for acting, Yaa for singing and understudy Joanna Francis as a dancer are the pick.

It is wonderful to have Black audiences coming to the West End to see British Black shows but sad that this fact is even worthy of comment. The Big Life has some major technical shortcomings but, with a bit of effort, can tap into audiences from all cultural backgrounds, which must be its route to ongoing success.

Jackie Fletcher reviewed the original production at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Reviewer: Philip Fisher