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The Big Life

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Big Life, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 2024
Photo: Mark Senior

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

TRSE’s beloved Windrush musical is still a delight 20 years on

In 2004, as his swansong at Stratford East after a 25-year tenure as artistic director, Philip Hedley programmed ‘The Big Life’. It is bittersweet then, that the hit musical returns to the venue to celebrate its 20-year anniversary in the year of his death – Hedley passed away in January. His memory lives on in this belter of a musical revival and time has done little to age its story. Today it is as infectious, heart-rendering and as achingly resonant as ever.

Paul Sirett and Tameka Empson’s script takes the convoluted comedy of Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and enriches it to tell a battle of the sexes story from the Windrush generation. Dennis, Ferdy, Bernie and Lennie arrive by boat to Britain full of aspirations and big dreams. ‘The sky’s the limit,’ they sing, wide-eyed and determined to make something of themselves. Nothing will hold them back. And so, after Bernie and his wife-to-be Sybil have a spat on the ship over, the men all reluctantly promise to abjure women and booze for three years.

The music is the lifeblood of this tale of suspended satisfaction: the cocktail of blues, jazz, calypso and soul is a gesture to what the Windrush generation left and lost when they travelled across the waters. The men’s bright futures soon turn cloudy. They are turned away from every B&B in the city, can’t get the jobs they’re qualified for, and are subjected to endless racist taunts. With each knockback, the sparkle in their eyes dwindles just a little bit more.

 Somehow though, optimism is never lost entirely and ‘The Big Life’ remains an uplifting vision of hope. The set designed by Jasmin Swan is a delirious constellation of colour. The dance numbers choreographed by Ingrid Mackinnon are exuberantly full of two-steps and verve. Tinuke Craig’s joyful production becomes a hysterical cat-and-mouse chase: the men repeatedly try to resist the women’s advances, while their love interests dig in their heels and giggle and eye-roll over and over.

The core of Craig’s revival is the wholehearted ensemble. As Dennis, Khalid Daley looks so physically entranced by his sweetheart Kathy that his whole body moves like jelly when she’s near – and he’s got a voice so honeyed you could listen to him sing the alphabet. As Kathy, Juliet Agnes’s rendition of the zingy ‘Ain’t Nothing Hotter’ makes the hair on your neck stand on end. Karl Queensborough’s Lennie turns into a quivering mess even at the idea of a woman even entering a room.

There’s no weak link in this colossally talented cast, but the evening belongs to Tameka Empson as Mrs Aphrodite. Sitting somewhere between a Greek chorus and a Jamaican elder, she parks herself in the theatre’s royal box and chucks in riotous remarks on the action – on the night I see it she even drops the contents of her bags into the stalls. She’s a mastermind comedian, but an even better orator – ‘we came here not only to work but show love,’ she reminds us of the Windrush generation. Her words are a tribute to them – abundantly full of compassion and fury for the hand they were unfairly served.

Written by
Anya Ryan


£10-£45.50. Runs 3hr
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