“The Big Life” at Stratford East Theatre Royal

Mark Shenton in east London
24 February 2024

When the original 2004 production of The Big Life transferred from the Theatre Royal Stratford East to the West End’s Apollo Theatre the following year, its director Clint Dyer became the first black British director to direct an original British musical in the West End. As he told me in an interview at the time, “The wonderful thing about being black in this country is that you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things.”


Leanne Henlon, Karl Queensborough and Gabrielle Brooks.
Photo credit: Mark Senior.


Nearly 20 years later, times have changed radically; Dyer, who is currently deputy artistic director at the National Theatre, is now one of the few people ever to have acted, directed, or written plays on each of that building’s stages. But if definite progress has been made, this warm and welcoming revival of The Big Life, now directed by Tinuke Craig, at its original East End home, is a reminder of how hard-won that trajectory has been.

As the song in Hamilton, this century’s most iconic musical so far, has it, “immigrants – we get the job done!” First brought from the Caribbean in 1948 aboard the Windrush to help rebuild a post-war Britain, these immigrants did just that – but also suffered casual racism and rejection from their hosts, culminating in the national scandal of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” to immigrants from abroad, with many threatened with deportation when they could not produce proof of their eligibility to live in Britain, despite a near lifetime of being resident here.

Tameka Empson, who co-wrote the book with Paul Sirett and reprises her original Olivier-nominated turn as Mrs Aphrodite, comments heartfeltedly on this in her occasional narration from the stage side boxes, amongst more witty interjections, as she offers a running comic commentary on the action.

But though the show rightly acknowledges the hardships and injustices they met among the way, most poignantly and powerfully in a bitter scene where one of the arrivals tries to get an appointment with a university professor who had told him to contact him, the tone of the show is mostly celebratory, not earnest.


Khalid Daley and Danny Bailey.
Photo credit: Mark Senior.


It smartly adopts – and cleverly adapts – the Shakespearean plot of Love’s Labour’s Lost to set in motion a comic caper in which four male arrivals 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 their struggle of enforced celibacy isn’t going to be easy to maintain, but it gives the songs (music by Paul Joseph, lyrics by Paul Sirett, the latter of whom also co-wrote the book) plenty of narrative twists to play with.

And Joseph’s eclectic and electrifying music – full of West Indian flavours – stretches from calypso and ska to traditional ballads and anthemic declarations. A punchy seven-piece onstage band led by musical director Ian Oakley, who also arranged and orchestrated the music, accompanies over 20 tremendous songs, staged with immense vivacity and wit by choreographer Ingrid Mackinnon.

Just as Guys and Dolls (currently revived at the Bridge Theatre) brings a teaming Times Square to life, The Big Life puts Piccadilly Circus centre stage, which designer Jasmine Swan summons with a black and white painted flat, foregrounded by a model of Eros that takes human form too (Danny Bailey).

A vibrant ensemble cast brings the entire show to pulsating, energetic life, led by Gabrielle Brooks, Rachel John, Leanne Henlon, and Juliet Agnes as the women, and Nathanael Campbell, Khalid Daley, Karl Queensborough, and Ashley Samuels as their suitors.

It’s also worth taking a moment to reflect on the immense contributions of two men, who both died in the last six months, to the story of this show: the theatre’s former long-time artistic director Philip Hedley, who nurtured the original director Clint Dyer’s talents from when he first joined the youth theatre there, and shepherded the show to the stage; and Bill Kenwright, who produced the transfer. This show would not exist without them.