London has a new musical, The Big Life, with a West Indian musical flavor and a Shakespearean plot. Writer Paul Sirett has taken the story of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor Lost and transported it to 1950s London and the tale of four men coming from the West Indies who plan to swear off women to save money and focus on their education. An all singing, all dancing musical with a live band on stage, the show is already getting rave reviews.
This story of West Indian immigrants is a retelling of the Windrush and other boats from the Caribbean who brought thousands of people from Jamaica, Trinidad and other parts of the West Indies to England. In 1948, the Empire Windrush brought to England over 500 immigrants coming to England from Jamaica with the promise of jobs and education - 'The Big Life'. On the boat were Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner and Kitch was caught by Pathe newsreel footage as he disembarked singing his new song, London is the Place for Me.
The arrival of the Windrush is now regarded as a seminal event in the social history of England, as it marked the rise of a new multi-cultural landscape. The Fiftieth Anniversary in 1998 sparked a series of books as well as numerous radio, television, and concert events. No doubt some of those festivities helped inspire the show’s author Paul Sirett who had been in a ska band himself when he was younger.
Sirett is both an experienced musician and an experienced playright. He has been in many different bands over the years from blues to jazz to reggae and ska playing in the band Bliss among others and . He has also written a couple dozen plays many of which have been produced in theatres or on the BBC radio and TV. Sirett has been the associate writer for the Theatre East Stratford for a decade and The Big Life is the fifth of his plays to be produced there.
His day job is as the literary manager for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for the last three years after working for several years before that as the literary manager of the Soho Theatre in London. A good many of them have featured music from his play A Night in Tunisia about an African American music in England to his award winning radio play about an opera singer. Last fall, his musical adaptation of Shawn Levy's best-seller, Rat Pack Confidential on Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr had a lengthy run at the Whitehall Theatre.
Thus The Big Life is only the latest of a long lines of plays with or about music by Sirett. The idea came to him to combine ska and Shakespeare many years ago. He started working on the book by reading everything he could about the Windrush generation and talking to many people like director Clint Dyer’s parents who had come to England in the Fifties from the West Indies. “I’d like to think there’s a lot of truth in the play as a result.”
The Theatre artistic director Philip Headley put Sirett in touch with musician Paul Joseph leader in a reggae band, the Nazarines. The Nazarines have been performing around England since 1997 and are just finishing their second album. Joseph had been to a writing musical writing workshop put on in 1999 by Theatre Royal Stratford East. He was so impressive in the workshop that Headley suggested that Sirett and Joseph work together on Sirett’s planned ska musical. Sirett was delighted to do so and impressed by the wonderful songs that Joseph shaped out of the lyrics Sirett had written.
Paul Joseph grew up a product of the Windrush generation for both his parents came to London from Antigua in the Fifties to make their fortune. Joseph worked on the songs in the show to make sure they reflected flavors of music heard by West Indian immigrants in London in the Fifties and Sixties. As reviewer Mark Sheldon noted, “This battle-of-the-sexes comedy is wittily told through a score that embraces calypso and ska, soulful ballads and spiritual anthems”. The infectious up tempo, horn driven ska music had long been a favorite of Sirett and the openness of the form allowed Joseph to incorporate various styles in the 25 songs that are in the show.
The reviews have been very positive. The Evening Standard called it a “well deserved success”. The Observer raved, “The lively score encompasses ska, soca, calypso and big band jazz, while some of the booty-shaking choreography belongs to a ragga video”. The Metro reviewer concluded, “director Clint Dyer keeps this rumbustious, big-hearted play skipping along”. The Independent proclaimed “The emergence of a strong, original-book musical into the London stage wilderness of cut-and-paste, back-catalogue plundering was always going to be welcomed. That when it arrived it would be as joyous an affair as Paul Sirett and Paul Joseph’s The Big Life is more than the jaded musical theatre-goer could have dared hope.”
The script of the musical has also just been published by Oberon Books who previously published editions of Sirett’s Rat Pack Confidential and Three Plays A Night in Tunisia, Jamaica House, Skaville. The play opened on April 17 and was scheduled to run until May 22 but has already proved so popular that it has been extended to May 29. There is even talk of it going to London’s West End from its current run at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, (www.stratfordeast.com) at Gerry Raffles Square in the East End in London.
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