The Big Life: this fantastically warm, joyous Windrush musical deserves to be a hit again

Exuberant: the cast of The Big Life
Exuberant: the cast of The Big Life - Mark Senior

If you’re feeling wintered out and thoroughly inert, and the world and its crises are making you want to weep or block your ears, then these are precisely the reasons you should heed the call of The Big Life.

Paul Sirett and Paul Joseph’s joyous ska musical about the Fifties Windrush generation, which takes its storyline of comically thwarted sexual abstinence from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, exudes such Caribbean-strength warmth that watching it feels like a holiday in itself.

Hailing from 2004 – and the end of the late Philip Hedley’s tenure running the Theatre Royal Stratford East – this slick, vividly staged revival by Tinuke Craig stirs some escapist nostalgia for the 2000s too, when we seemed less rancorously divided and celebrated the felicity in diversity.

Not, it must be said, that the show avoids spelling out the disheartening prejudice encountered by the Windrushers, especially early on – when chorused enthusiasm for the “motherland” while in ocean-going transit hits the post-docking reality of abruptly unavailable accommodation and job opportunities.

This racism – both described and then rendered explicit in a demoralising encounter between a friendly PhD student called Ferdy and a coldly vicious secretary – could lend the evening an embittered note. But the show’s success is to make political points with the lightest touch, its jaunty appropriation of Shakespeare, undaunted exuberance and evident musical bounty the most eloquent retort to prejudice.

Khalid Daley, Ashley Samuels, Danny Bailey, Nathanael Campbell and Karl Queensborough in The Big Life
Khalid Daley, Ashley Samuels, Danny Bailey, Nathanael Campbell and Karl Queensborough in The Big Life - Mark Senior

Love, also, not resentment, or worse, is the watchword here. In contrast to Small Island, Andrea Levy’s landmark novel about this era, the show focuses mainly on the incomers, with only room for one significant white character: a sympathetic cockney woman called Jacqueline, who’s driven to sex work by hardship. The initial alienation and incomprehension felt by the arriving contingent – two waiting-to-be-matched quartets of men and women – is transmuted into infectious, in-jokey patter songs – a tongue-twisting whirl of Underground station names in London Song, and a send-up of England’s queue-fetish, mocking coercive politeness (Excuse Me).

The want of social acceptance spurs the chaps in their bet-assisted collective celibacy, vowing to get ahead financially, but equally age-old hormonal imperatives propel them to betray their nonsensical vows. There are enjoyable, audience-dividing riffs on the differences, and contrasting inadequacies, between the sexes, and an inspired re-imagining of LLL’s eavesdropping scene around Piccadilly Circus’s Eros.

Trilby hats off to the company – who find depth, charm and sincerity in the sometimes sketchy characterisation, as well as bringing delectable vocal and physical heft to their roles; the committed band neatly stowed away at the rear of the stage. The scene-stealer in chief is Tameka Empson, mainly commenting on the action from a circle box as Aphrodite, a wickedly entertaining granny who also imparts salient, stinging rebukes about the Windrush scandal (”We brought so much love to this country... to push us out, it is not right!”). In 2005, The Big Life was the first black British musical to go to the West End. Whether or not it should undertake that voyage again, it deserves the heartiest embrace just as it stands.


Until Mar 30. Tickets: 020 8534 0310; stratfordeast.com