British (or Anglo-European) musicals like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables have become the West End’s own contribution to globalisation.
But how do we make British musicals local again, addressing grass-root issues and the local community with stories of how we actually live? That struggle to create an authentic, original, heartfelt and meaningful new British musical takes a decisive step forwards with Stratford East’s triumphant staging of The Big Life, the best socially aware – not to mention happily tuneful – musical of its kind since Blood Brothers.
The show deals with a decisive chapter in the history of modern Britain – the arrival of Caribbean immigrants here aboard the Windrush in 1948. Although Paul Sirett’s script doesn’t skirt the early hardships they suffered – from difficulties in finding jobs and racist encounters to familiar gripes about the local weather – it doesn’t drown in earnestness. By cleverly adopting a Shakespearean plot it turns into something far more celebratory, fun and effective.
The musical focuses on four men who, like the male characters in Love’s Labour’s Lost, make a pact to eschew the company of women for three years while they seek to make their way in their new home. Of course, temptation – and a tap-dancing Eros – quickly comes their way.
This battle-of-the-sexes comedy is wittily told through a score that embraces calypso and ska, soulful ballads and spiritual anthems, with Mrs Aphrodite (Tameka Empson) offering a witty running commentary from the stage-side boxes between scenes. Clint Dyer’s vibrant, vivacious production may still have some rough edges but it is all part of the appeal of a show that is full of heart and art.