The Big Life @ Apollo Theatre, London

cast list
Geoff Aymer
Claudia Cadette
Tamaka Empson
Amanda Horlock
Antonia Kemi-Coker
Jason Pennycooke
Marcus Powell
Neil Reidman
Yvette Rochester-Duncan
Victor Romero-Evans
Chris Tummings

written by
Paul Sirett

music by
Paul Joseph

directed by
Clint Dyer
There’s something very pleasant and refreshing happening in the West End at the moment, both on the stage and in the audience. What with this and with Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen opening last month at the Garrick, there are now two productions about black British life playing in major London theatres. And from the enthusiastic reaction of those in the auditorium for both productions, cheering and applauding, laughing in recognition and wincing in apprehension, this is something that has clearly been far too long in coming about.

Paul Sirett’s energetic and warm-hearted musical played for two successful seasons at the Theatre Royal Stratford East before transferring to the Apollo, but has lost none of its buzz in the process. What Sirett has done is simple yet incredibly effective: The Big Life is basically Love’s Labour Lost transplanted to 1950s London. On the deck of the Windrush, with England in their sights, Dennis, Bernie, Ferdy and Lennie share their hopes of making it big in their new home, of landing jobs in engineering and academia. To ensure these dreams come true they make a pact to stay out of trouble and stay away from women. Of course, the minute they arrive at their East London boarding house they each meet their perfect woman and what follows is the expected mix of misunderstandings and setbacks all set to a series of lively ska numbers.

Once on British shores disillusionment quickly sets in, the men can’t find decent jobs, money is tight and it’s far too cold. Prejudice is a constant, unvoiced issue; but it’s soon clear that this production has no intention of grappling with reality in the way that, say, Billy Elliot does. In fact, the one moment of more overt racism is rather fumbled. This lightness of approach is emphasised by the between scene changes where a chorus of sorts is provided by Mrs Aphrodite, an elderly, lavender-clad Jamaican lady played by Tameka Empson sitting up in the Royal box. It’s a gimmick, yes, but a good one, and her semi-improvised interjections are one of the show’s highpoints.

The Big Life is very minimal for a West End musical – no elaborate sets or people tapdancing on the ceiling – while the acting, in contrast, is pretty broad, all double-takes and funny walks. But it’s never long before another song starts up, another infectious and exuberant number performed by the excellent band, who sit perched above the stage sporting white suits and angel wings. There are plenty of strong voices on display as well, the most memoprable being that of Yaa who plays Sybil, the object of Bernie’s affections. Of the women, Antonia Kemi-Coker also leaves a strong impression as Zulieka.

The Big Life is rough around the edges and not exactly subtle but at the same time it’s an incredibly endearing and enjoyable production, amusing and rewarding in equal measure. And as a result of its presence in Theatreland, the West End is a warmer and more welcoming place.

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