It’s been just over 75 years since a generation of citizens came from the Caribbean to help rebuild Britain. The Big Life returns to Stratford East to shine a dazzling spotlight on their story. Whilst the dark truth of their experience is illuminated, love shines through, for a joyous celebration of the Windrush people that will have you grinning from ear to ear.

Paul Sirett’s and Tameka Epsom’s musical premiered in Stratford 20 years ago with great acclaim that led to a West End run. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, it’s a battle of the sexes meets romcom, filled with irresistible ska, calypso and soul influenced bangers.

We meet our cast on the way to the ‘mother country’ of post-war Britain. Their palpable optimism is reflected in the toe tapping opening number ‘In Inglan’ where they sing in glorious gospel harmony about their wishes of making a mark on their new home.

As part of their quest to make it big, the four male leads — Ferdy (Ashley Samuels), Bernie (Nathanael Campbell), Dennis (Khalid Daley) and Lennie (Karl Queensborough) — swear to give up all their vices; drinking, smoking and women, sealing their promise with a bet with Danny Bailey’s hilariously smooth Admiral, who doubles as the god of love, Eros.

Once they arrive, the harsh reality of life in Britain hits home, and they are met with grey weather, job rejection notices and ‘No Irish, No blacks, No dogs’ signs. It’s the perfect storm for love to resurface with the women in their lives — Sybil (Gabrielle Brooks), Mary (Leanne Henlon), Zulieka (Rachel John) and Kathy (Juliet Agnes) — only with the help of Eros and Aphrodite, of course, Epsom returning to the stage to play the latter.

Directed by Tinuke Craig, the show manages to do justice to the racism the Windrush generation have experienced then and now, whilst never letting it linger enough to take away from the happy, humorous and sometimes campy tone.

Both elements are furthered by Epsom’s Aphrodite, who provides a quick-witted commentary from a box. Her auntie-meet-dame character provides howls of laughter throughout, including after an unexpected Trojan condom reference, but it’s her tear jerking condemnation of the ongoing treatment of the people who came ‘with only love’ that has the most visceral reaction from the stalls.

The score is catchy with great range, from yearning blues ballads like ‘Whatever Happened’ to the upbeat ‘London Song’ where endless tube names are rapped over cheerful trumpets. All the cast members bring their own unique sound to the set list and there isn’t an off-key moment throughout the evening.

Our story plays out on Jasmine Swan’s set, largely split into the characters’ shared house and Piccadilly Circus, under a grand Eros statue, foreshadowing the romantic side of the tale. Complete with old fashioned adverts and mid-century furniture, it successfully propels you to the 40s.

Since The Big Life’s last run, lots has changed, and sadly not always for the better. Yes, there is a ‘Windrush line’ in the works and a commemorative statue in the halls of Waterloo station, but with 2018’s Windrush scandal still fresh in our minds and attitudes to immigration only worsening, this show is more important than ever. Its message is strong and wholehearted. In the face of adversity, love can, and should, win.

Photo credit: Mark Senior