On the Empire Windrush sailing over from the Caribbean to England, a pact is made by a group of men not to get involved with women for three years whilst they 'institute a regime of work and betterment'. Each man's resolve is tested as one by one they fall prey to Cupid's arrow.
The expectations could not have been higher. Philip Hedley and Bill Kenwright join forces to bring this first-ever black musical to the Apollo Theatre in the heart of the West End. Did these formidable producers pull it off or was this yet another expectation – another low delivery show that fails to live up to expectations?
Well, for my money, I can definitely say that The Big Life is a the breath of fresh air; sailing into a gloomy, predictable West End that delivers tried and tested film remakes in its usual corny penny pinching ‘this’ll get the tourist in’. Finally here is a show that sings with the heart of London for all its faults and all its virtues. We have finally got a show playing in a jewel of our wonderful theatres that actual shows and communicates the people who live, work and contribute to the energy that is our beautiful multi-cultural City.
Of course, along the way is the hard struggle and fight for place, love and ownership in a new world that is a far cry from the sunny climates and fresh bananas of West Indies (watch the show and you will get the funny side of that remark – a tease I know).
It is impossible for me to single out any individual performance; even to start will undermine what the show is about. This is because The Big Life is the finest example of any ensemble performance you will see in London at the moment. When you consider this project has been the baby of Philip Hedley (former artistic director of Stratford East) you will understand that the ensemble is everything. This notion and hard driving principle is easy to see and say, but very difficult to achieve. Like the people who landed in England so many years ago with high expectations and a sense of discovery, so did the company of The Big Life, who embarked on a massive project to bring together a company who can entertain, make us laugh, cry and stamp our feet all in the space of two and a half hours. My neck is still tingling and my spine is still quivering. Further, I am not at home today humming one tune, I am going through the entire score – magnificent music and songs from Paul Joseph sung with gusto, verve and the slightest of tongue-in-cheek makes for a soundtrack that I expect to be in the shops very soon.
The Big Life deserves big audiences. This show will run and run and run and sail into the history books as the first and the best black musical to anchor its weight in the West End. Go and buy a ticket and tap your feet along with the superb cast. You will be far from disappointed – you will be lifted.
Gene David Kirk