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** The Big Life ** - Caribbean Musical Tries To Break West End Taboo
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Posted by:May 23rd 2005, 04:39:31 pm
Fig Tree News TeamBlack British musical tries to break West End taboo

By Jeremy Lovell
Mon May 23, 1:13 PM ET

A British musical with an all black cast opens Monday hoping to smash the glass ceiling campaigners say has confined home-grown black drama to the theatrical fringe.

After eight years in gestation and rave reviews elsewhere, The Big Life starts up in London's West End as the first ever black British musical set in a black British community to enter the city's theater heartland.

"It has been a struggle to get this play to the West End because there is a glass ceiling placed there by institutional racism in British theater," said retired theater director Philip Hedley who has been campaigning on behalf of the play.

"This show could help change the face of London theater and make a breakthrough for black theater," he told Reuters.

But a spokesman for the Society of London Theater -- an umbrella group representing 58 theaters in the city including all in the West End -- rejected the accusation of racism, pointing to a number of musicals by and about black Americans.

"It is absolutely ridiculous. There have been lots of black musicals in the West End," said chief executive officer Richard Pulford. "We put a show in the West End according to what we expect the market to be."

And for theater critic Charlie Spencer it is less a question of innate racism than the fact that black British theater audiences tend to avoid the high priced West End.

"For theater promoters the bottom line is vital. It is not just a question of getting the black audience to travel to the West End and pay the higher ticket prices there but also of getting white audiences to go to a black show, he added.

The toe-tapping Ska musical -- a mixture of blues, calypso, soul, jazz and reggae -- traces the steps of four men heading from the 1950s Bahamas and Caribbean aboard the SS Windrush to find a new life in post-war England.

Based on William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, the play examines the racism experienced by the first wave of black immigrants to arrive in Britain in search of a fresh start.


Using the bard's classic scenes of humour, the Big Life's treatment of its subject is light-hearted but penetrating.

The aim, according to actor-director Clint Dyer, is to highlight the exuberance of the Caribbean peoples through their music and attitudes and show their contribution to staid British society in the aftermath of World War II.

While on the boat, the four pledge to remain chaste for three years so they can direct their full attention to building a better life.

It then traces their progress through racist confrontations, soul-destroying work and the allure of the flesh in the bleak urban landscape of London.

Needless to say, one by one the four abandon their pledges.

In performances outside the West End, critics hailed the show as "a funny, sad, uplifting, rip-roaring, toe-tapping, tear-jerking white-knuckle ride."

While recording the serious problems faced by the immigrant community in Britain, The Big Life never abandons its optimism or good humour, they said.

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