The Big Life, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

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The Independent Culture

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 for.

Sirett's book borrows its central planks from Love's Labour's Lost. Journeying from the West Indies to England in the 1950s, four friends vow to forswear wine and women (but thankfully not song) in order to make the most of their new life in England. The women with whom they share a boarding house, however, soon test their peacock-ish resolve.

From the opening number, a spiritual paean to England, destination of their dreams, the show is the book musical equivalent of the Trinidadian calypso snapshots of first generation immigrant life in England by the likes of Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner.

Billed as "The Ska Musical" - the dominant genre of the evening - Joseph's music is shaded with a variety of popular-roots forms, including jazz, calypso, blues and soul, as well as spiritual. The five-piece band executes each tune with infectious joy, while the 12 voices - from the bluesy Sybil (Yaa) to the soulful Ferdy (Victor Romero-Evans) to the heavenly sweetness of Dennis (Marcus Powell) and the Puck-ish Admiral (Jason Pennycooke, who also choreographs) - match the band's verve.

Clint Dyer's production is packed with comic detail. Ferdy sings his plea of love for Zulieka in the front parlour of her boarding house, exhausted with his own emotion and draped in a tablecloth in an uproarious parody of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. The preening Lennie (Chris Tummings) and the tempestuous Mary (Lorna Brown) spark deliciously.

Stratford's famously raucous audience is brought into the proceedings too, through Mrs Aphrodite (Tameka Empson), who sits in the royal box offering an hilarious running commentary between scenes.

Amid the fun, the social comment laced through the evening gains power from its understatement. The racist hostility the characters endure is met with a confusion and pain that Sirett's clear lyrics convey without rancour. Indeed, for all the show's verve and exuberance, every element - from performers, band, laughs and social comment to the economical and witty set - is perfectly balanced in an irresistible whole.

The show is a fitting finale to the 25-year tenure of Stratford East Artistic Director Philip Hedley, who signs off with an impassioned essay in the programme on his theatre's unrivalled multicultural contribution to the British musical stage. The Big Life has already claimed its place among the best in that heritage.

To 22 May (020-8534 0310)