The Big Life: The Ska Musical – Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

Reviewer: Christine Stanton

Book and Lyrics: Paul Sirett

Book: Tameka Empson

Director: Tinuke Craig

It has been just over 50 years ago the first wave of migration from the Caribbean to the UK and 20 years since The Big Life first debuted at Stratford East. Back with a ska-studded soundtrack and a fantastic cast, this jubilant musical is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

The show begins with the hilarious Tameka Empson (Mrs Aphrodite) taking her seat in the audience, proudly shouting out to everyone that her grandson is performing in the show. Empson’s character becomes somewhat of a narrator – and with every scene re-set, attention is moved from stage to stalls as she comments on each scene, either with an anecdote about her arrival in England or just her opinions on how the show is playing out. These moments of commentary are always extremely funny and she plays the comedic compere perfectly, keeping engagement high outside of the main storyline.

On the boat over to England, Dennis (Khalid Daley), Lennie (Karl Queensborough), Ferdy (Ashley Samuels) and Bernie (Nathanael Campbell) all make a pact that they are turning their life around on arrival. No women, no alcohol and no smoking for the next three years – just hard work to ensure they not only better themselves, but their finances also. Admiral (Danny Bailey) is convinced they will fail at the first hurdle, so bets five pounds that they won’t make it to the end of their supposed contract. They do well, but life is made harder when they move into accommodation with Bernie’s ex and three other women – Sybil (Gabrielle Brooks), Kathy (Juliet Agnes), Zulieka (Rachel John) and Mary (Leanne Henlon). Naturally, the battle of the two sexes begins – who is stronger, who is better and who will cave first and fall in love?

The uplifting storyline is full of fun – with all of the performers excelling in the silly humour and ridiculous farcical situations they find themselves in with each other. The upbeat musical score is brilliantly performed alongside the on-stage band, who execute the enjoyable ska theme within each number perfectly. The set (Jasmine Swan) comprises three main locations – Piccadilly Circus, the boat and the kitchen of the flat the eight main characters share. Although simple sets, they immediately embed the location, while refraining from anything too flashy to detract from the cast.

While the main focus of the show is the miscommunications between the men and women and their respective interests in each other, the storyline far from shies away from more serious subject matter, including it seamlessly into the story without diluting any of the comedy. When the group arrive in England they are excited by the promise of work, happy to help rebuild a broken country and proud that they have been invited to lend their hand. Disappointingly, far from being met with open arms, they encounter numerous experiences of racism, struggle to get jobs and are treated like second-class citizens. Their frustration is echoed with commentary about the more recent Windrush scandal and the disgusting treatment the Government enabled. These are harrowing moments of reflection – importantly injected into the narrative, grounding the otherwise light-hearted storyline with the reality that many faced.

Bringing this show back to the stage was a brilliant decision for those involved. The unique score, enjoyable storyline and fantastic cast make this show a complete winner, and it’s impossible not to spend most of the three-hour runtime whole-heartedly enraptured.

Runs until 30 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Jubilantly Loveable

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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