Theatrical history is being made twice over in the West End right now. The transfer of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen from the National marked the first time ever that a contemporary British-born black writer has had a play produced in the West End. It has now been joined by the arrival of The Big Life, the first indigenously created black musical set in Britain to open on Shaftesbury Avenue, too, that has transferred from Stratford East’s Theatre Royal, where it originally premiered last April.
It may seem incredible that it has taken quite so long for this to happen but no special pleading needs to be made for either show. They earn their right to be there on any terms. And while Bill Kenwright – the producer of both – deserves credit for making the West End a more colourful place in every sense, he has got a real winner here.
Like the recently opened Billy Elliot, this is a British folk musical about real folk. And it could just herald the dawning of a new golden age for British musicals. Not since the advent of the mega-musical in the early eighties has there been such a vibrancy and confidence about them but the key difference is that shows like these are adopting local stories, which play out slices of social as well as personal histories.
As it charts the fictional story of the arrival of a group of Caribbean immigrants aboard the Windrush to fifties Britain, it scores points about the racism they suffered but doesn’t drown in either earnestness or preachiness.
It is original in every way. Paul Sirett has created an original story – lightly spun from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours’ Lost – while Paul Joseph has written a superbly syncopated score of vibrant melodies. Jason Pennycooke’s slick and witty choreography makes it a tremendous dance show, too, while a superb ensemble cast – and brilliant onstage six-strong band – create a thrilling atmosphere. Clint Dyer’s staging has managed to retain the raw vigour it had at Stratford but the show has been enhanced with a real rigour, too to make it one of the most joyful musicals in town.