The Big Life, Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue, London

At last, the lives of black Britons are given a West End berth
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The Independent Culture

Aboard the good ship Windrush, this black ska musical - which has wowed audiences at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where it was developed - now sails jubilantly into Shaftesbury Avenue and into the history books. For it's hard to credit it, but this is the first time that the West End has ever opened its portals to a musical about the lives of black Britons.

There have been shows where black artists from these shores have electrified audiences in work of American provenance - compilation pieces, such as Five Guys Named Moe, and rousing original fare such as Simply Heavenly. But one of the exhilarating things about The Big Life is that it manages, if anything, to be even more joyous than these previous hits, while depicting - without either mitigation or rancour - the experience of first generation Caribbean immigrants to this country.

With greater flair than Kenneth Branagh's attempt to turn Love's Labour's Lost into a white-tie-and-tails movie musical, Paul Sirett's witty book and lyrics and Paul Joseph's infectious, upbeat score plucks the situations from Shakespeare's comedy and transplants them into the initially incongruous setting of 1950s London.

Four newly-arrived male friends pledge to foreswear wine and women for three years while they work to better themselves. But, aided by a sprite-like trickster who combines aspects of Puck, Autolycus and Eros, and who is winningly played by the show's elfin and mischievous choreographer, Jason Pennycooke, the four sassy and sexy dames in their boarding house have other plans for these guys.

The show has a wonderfully bounding and buoyant spirit. It registers the privations that these immigrants suffer - the unemployment, the institutional racism, the social humiliations etc - but refuses to be browbeaten or soured by them. It helps that the women seem to be as horny as hell.

By the statue of Eros at Piccadilly, there's a splendid equivalent of the scene in Shakespeare where the men discover that they have all broken the pact and the comedy is intensified by the cheating sprite who tricks the men into paying extortionately for his useless love songs.

Backed with verve by a six-piece band in celestial white suits and wings, the singing and dancing is delivered with terrific attack and the kind of contagious joy that will have the aisles jumping. The community feel is enhanced by the commentary of Mrs Aphrodite (hilarious Tameka Empson) who sits up in a box like Jamaica's answer to Dame Edna, her raunchiness constantly poking through her gloved respectability. A delight.