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The Big Life | Stratford East

Written by Paul Sirett and Tameka Empson with music by Paul Joseph, The Big Life is directed by Tinuke Craig. Based on Shakespeare's 'Love's Labour's Lost' and adapted to depict the struggles of the Windrush Generation (Caribbean immigrants between 1948 and 1971), this musical uses the style of Ska to bring to life the heart and soul of the lives of millions. 

Primarily following the journey of four friends as they travel to England with high hopes of a bright future, the story transitions into a comedy with the four men swearing off women for three years... Only to meet their perfect counterparts shortly after. A hilarious tale on resisting temptations, falling in love, brotherhood and sisterhood, The Big Life brings out the best of Shakespeare's penchant for chaotic ensemble stories. Sirett and Empson's decision to focus it on the Windrush Generation adds an underlying theme of racism, hope, sexism, forgiveness, loss and grief to it. This additional layer enables the musical to speak volumes and call for a remembrance of the struggles beneath the surface, and the humanity that resides within. 

The cast are brilliant, and bounce off of one another rather well. The four friends Bernie, Dennis, Lennie and Ferdy, (Nathanael Campbell, Khalid Daley, Karl Queensborough and Ashley Samuels) work together incredibly well and have a strong sense of brotherhood. Similarly, the other four friends Kathy, Sybil, Mary and Zulieka (Juliet Agnes, Gabrielle Brooks, Leanne Henlon and Rachel John) present a close knit unit of sisterhood. Adding to this is the wise and lovable sex worker Jacqueline (Beth Elliot), the sensitive and grounded Reverend (Gabriel Fleary) and a hilarious and charming Admiral (Daniel Bailey). Rounding this stellar cast off is the incomparable Mrs Aphrodite, played by Tameka Empson.

Khalid Daley as Dennis wins audiences over with his comedic timing, strong vocals, lovable antics and the surprising depth to his character. Rachel John as Zulieka brings incredible heart to the show in her painful backstory and brave face. Ashley Samuels as Ferdy shines and reduces the audience to awed silence and tears with his powerful rendition of 'The Price We Pay', a number that is later reprised by the entire cast to similar effect. 

A truly inspired and creative choice was to have Tameka Emspson as Mrs Aphrodite, who was situated in the box, often commenting and mocking the characters, rambling about personal issues and interacting with the audience during scene transitions. The show opens with her bumbling about her own phone, presenting us with the funniest pre-show warning, and introducing us to her grandson. Hilariously peppering the show with pop culture references and witty observations, she also manages to deliver a rousing and moving speech about the struggles faced by immigrants and NHS workers. Without spoilers, she undergoes quite a dramatic transformation in the act one closing that will bedazzle the audience.

The songs are excellent and audiences will be swept away by the charm of the ska style. Whilst not predominantly used for an entire musical, The Big Life proves that it can be done, and done well. The cast effortlessly perform these high energy numbers, quick raps and soul stirring songs. The songs are catchy and memorable and will have you tapping away during the show, and stuck in your head long after. 

The pacing of the show feels slightly off at times, as it includes moments that are vastly entertaining but do not necessarily add to the story. However, these moments brings us fun numbers such as 'Better Than You' and "W.O.M.A.N".

The costumes are thoughtfully created by Jasmine Swan, managing to capture the time period and blend the Caribbean and British influences to create colourful clothes. Subtle hints between romantic relationships is seen through colour co-ordination between the men and women. It was also interesting to see the slow loss of colour as the greyness of London life stripped the characters of their dreams. 

Lighting and sound design are by Elliot Griggs and Emma Laxton, and flood the stage with colour, creating a warm and vivd world filled with these bright and moving characters. The band are present on stage (led by a talented Ian Oakley), yet they never distract from the character and sets that are brought on for each scene (Jasmne Swan).

The Big Life makes a triumphant return to London after 20 years and proves that the show is just as poignant and relatable as ever. It shines a light on lesser known facts and stories about the Windrush Generation and their descendants, whilst providing an excellent and entertaining light hearted musical.

The Big Life is a show that cannot be recommend enough and is currently playing at the Stratford East Royal Theatre until the 30th of March. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Mark Senior


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