The Big Life, Apollo Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Aboard the good ship Windrush, this 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.

Aboard the good ship Windrush, this 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. This is the first time that the West End has opened its portals to a musical about the lives of black Britons. One of the exhilarating things about The Big Life is that it is joyous while depicting - without either mitigation or rancour - the experience of first-generation Caribbean immigrants.

With greater flair than Kenneth Branagh's attempt to turn Love's Labour's Lost into a throwback white-tie-and-tails movie musical, Paul Sirett's witty book and lyrics and Paul Joseph's infectiously upbeat score - which embraces jazz, soul, calypso and blues - pluck situations from Shakespeare's comedy and transplant them into the initially incongruous setting of 1950s London. Four newly-arrived male friends make a pledge to give up 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, four sassy and sexy dames in their boarding house have other plans for the guys.

The show registers the privations that these immigrants suffer - the unemployment, the institutional racism, the social humiliations, the realisation that the posthumous medal of a brother who died fighting in the Second World War cuts no ice in this society - but refuses to be browbeaten or soured by them. It helps that the women seem to be as horny as hell. Taken into hospital with a sprained ankle after being thrown off a bus, Dennis (in a lovely performance from Marcus Powell) has his promise of purity put under strain too by a nurse who is soon shaking out her hair and romping round the ward like a gooey gazelle.

By the statue of Eros in Piccadilly, there's a splendid equivalent of the scene in Shakespeare's play where the men discover that each of them has broken the pact.

There's something very moving about the fact that a piece of highbrow art has been so intelligently appropriated by popular culture and, often, improved upon. It adds to the evening'sinclusiveness.

Backed with verve by a six-piece band in celestial white suits and angelic wings, the singing and dancing (which include cheeky bumper-to-bumper pelvic grinds) are delivered with terrific attack and the kind of contagious joy that will have the whole joint jumping when the critics aren't there. The community feel is further enhanced by the running commentary of Mrs Aphrodite (the hilarious Tameka Empson) who sits up in a box like Jamaica's eye-rolling answer to Dame Edna, her raunchiness constantly poking through her gloved respectability.

To 5 November (020-7494 5070)

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