Tag Archives: Ciyo Brown



Theatre Royal Stratford East

THE BIG LIFE at the Theatre Royal Stratford East


“The whole show is a wondrous vision”

When front of house inform you that the show is approximately three hours long, the reaction is to smile politely while inwardly groaning and hoping there’s an espresso machine behind the bar at the interval. In the case of “The Big Life” however, after what is, in all actuality, a little over three hours we are still wanting more. It has been twenty years since this absolute gem of a musical premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East (before transferring to the West End), and its revival has come none too soon.

Set in the mid-fifties, the show opens on board the Windrush; sailing from the Caribbean carrying its voyagers heading for a new life. The characters are full of hope, with great expectations and personal aspirations. We all know the reality. But although this show touches on it, it is no ‘blaxploitation’ polemic. It is instead a true celebration of a culture to which we owe a huge debt.

Subtitled ‘the Ska Musical’, Paul Joseph’s music keeps the blood pumping and the feet tapping throughout. And during the more tender, balladic moments, our heartstrings almost snap. It is Bob Marley meets Louis Jordan. A crossbreed of ‘One Love’ and ‘Five Guys Named Moe’, with more than a splash of Leiber and Stoller thrown in. So where can you go wrong? Adding Shakespeare to the mix sounds like a risk too far, but the ingenious take on the bard’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is a masterstroke of theatrical reimagining. Paul Sirett and Tameka Empson’s book (Sirett is also the lyricist) even manages to improve on it while staying remarkably faithful.



On board the ship are four young men who make a pact to abstain from women and drink for three years in order to work hard and make something of their lives. The women in their lives have other ideas. The admiral of the ship follows them all onto dry land, igniting fire into the cold, grey, unwelcoming landscape, and moreover igniting mischief into the lives of the star-crossed individuals.

You don’t need to be familiar with Shakespeare’s storyline to follow the action. The biggest threat of losing the plot is through the sheer multitude of laugh-out-loud moments. The cast collectively throw the term ‘triple threat’ to the wind, multiplying their talents left, right and centre. Co-writer Empson presides over the evening as Mrs Aphrodite, commenting on the piece and filling in details from her majestic place in a box in the royal circle. In the guise of a forthright, Jamaican, first-generation immigrant, she flamboyantly and hilariously dispenses gossip and shameless commentary through the scene changes. Her perfectly timed interjections gently morph into more serious subject matter, poignantly and subtlety drawing attention to the darker side – particularly the recent Windrush scandals. The disturbing irony, and the fate of these migrants is not ignored and is treated by the writers with a respect and an authority that lends untold depth to the tremendous applause that greets the curtain call.

Onstage, meanwhile, the party continues. The seven-piece band continue to belt out the numbers with high energy while the ensemble cast is spreading joy like there’s no tomorrow. So much zest is bouncing off the stage that we forget that these actors are probably among the hardest working performers in London currently. I’d love to namecheck everyone, but each one is a star. I’d love to give a step-by-step account of the story and index the song list for you, but each number is a showstopper. The whole show is a wondrous vision. The score is a dream. Twenty years ago, it transferred to the West End. The standing ovation it received this time around will surely guide it there again. In double-time, of course – it is a ‘Ska musical’ after all.

THE BIG LIFE at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Reviewed on 22nd February 2024

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Mark Senior




Previously reviewed at this venue:

BEAUTIFUL THING | ★★★★★ | September 2023



Click here to see our Recommended Shows page


Café Society Swing – 5 Stars


Café Society Swing

Theatre Royal Stratford East

Reviewed – 6th June 2018


“Each of the female performers were spectacular”


Over the last couple of years, British jazz has been having a welcome renaissance. Fuelled by a young group of experimental musicians fluidly assimilating hip hop, afrobeat and electronic dance music into their sound, the jazz coming out of Britain today feels a world away from the form whose origins can be traced back to black musicians in New Orleans a century ago.

Café Society Swing tells the true story of New York’s first integrated club, where black and white audiences alike could appreciate some of the finest jazz musicians of their, if not all, time. This was a time when Jim Crow laws were still rife and prominent artists like Duke Ellington had to come through the kitchens to get into all white venues.

A narrator, in slightly different guises (played by Peter Gerald), guides us through the story of the club, run by son of immigrants, Barney Josephson, which was successful in gaining recognition for many musicians, most notably Billie Holiday. Café Society acted as the venue for Holiday’s first performance of lynching protest song, Strange Fruit. However, Josephson’s brother’s federal investigation into his supposed communist ties affected business at the club, meaning that it was forced to close in the early 1950s.

An eight piece band, lead by pianist, musical director and the show’s creator, Alex Webb, plays live on stage throughout the show. Down lighting and plenty of dry ice evoke the atmosphere of a smoky nightclub, which fits in well with the regal yet intimate glamour of the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Each of the female performers were spectacular, striking a balance between imitation of the iconic vocal stylings of Billie Holiday (Vimala Rowe), Lena Horne (Judi Jackson) and Sarah Vaughan (China Moses), whilst giving their own interpretation of the music. As accomplished jazz singers in their own rights, each vocalist blew me away with their soulful quality – not forgetting Ciyo Brown whose mellow and smooth voice was only one of his talents, also playing the guitar in the band.

Having (perhaps wrongly) expected a fully developed piece of musical theatre, I initially felt slightly disappointed with the words-and-music format of the show, finding the narration of the rise and fall of the club and its proprietor repetitive. However, if you take the mindset of being a guest in the cabaret environment of the club, being spoken to by the M.C., the piece becomes much more enjoyable.

After the fun and frivolity of a night at the club, the performance ends, as it should and as Josephson always insisted, with Vimala Rowe as the ineffable Billie Holiday under a single spotlight singing Strange Fruit. The music and lyrics evoking a time in the not too distant past too haunting for anything else to follow. Whilst the jazz of today may be taking new and exciting forms, it’s a genre that will unequivocally be associated with the struggle for freedom and whose power and poignancy should never be forgotten.


Reviewed by Amber Woodward

Photography by Craig Brough


Café Society Swing

Theatre Royal Stratford East until 16th June


Previously reviewed at this venue
Pyar Actually | ★★★★ | May 2018


Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com