Small Island – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Helen Edmundson

Director: Rufus Norris

Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, may take place over great swaths of the 20th Century, but its highlighting of British racism is sadly all too current.

Edmundson’s adaptation, which clocks in at well over three hours, spends most of Act I telling the life stories of three very different people. Hortense (Leonie Elliott), a teaching assistant in Jamaica, tells of being brought up by her God-fearing uncle and aunt, and the affection (and ultimate betrayal) she receives from her cousin Michael. In England, Mirren Mack’s Queenie escapes the labours of her parent’s Lincolnshire pig farm to work in her aunt’s London sweet shop, where she meets her boring but secure husband, Bernard.

Most impactfully of all,  Leemore Marrett Jr’s Gilbert, a livewire Jamaican who signs up for the Royal Air Force for the promise of an English education after World War II, finds that his life begins to sew the play’s hitherto disparate threads. He forms a friendship with Queenie during the war, then in later years meets Hortense back in Jamaica, where the pair plan new lives in the promised motherland of England.

The introduction of these principal players is gradual and fragmented but uses Act I to reveal their personalities in sharp relief. A smattering of acutely drawn supporting characters help move events along, from the broad comedy of Queenie’s confectionery-loving Aunt Dot (Rachel Lumberg) to an affectionate, moving turn by David Fielder as Bernard’s shellshocked father Arthur.

Most of Act I is a rather genteel affair, although it does contain some key moments – most notably a bombing sequence in which the production’s continued use of cast members’ shadows and filmed silhouettes is exploited to its fullest effect.

But the real, destructive bombshells come in Act II as Gilbert and Hortense struggle in a post-war England that is far from the land that was promised to them when the Empire Windrush left Jamaican shores. Living in a poky room in Queenie’s boarding house, Gilbert finds his military track record ignored and is blamed for other workers’ abuse towards him while working, and Hortense finds that all her Jamaican teaching qualifications are unrecognised. And both are treated to insinuations from Queenie’s neighbours that they are bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood.

But it is maybe the microaggressions Queenie exhibits when first meeting Hortense – wondering if she speaks English, or if she knows how to keep her room clean – that cut the deepest because they are unconsciously made by someone we have come to see as an ally. 

Those moments – and more, as Queenie’s complicated relationship with her estranged husband looks to the future – have a killer bite. In the opening moments of the play, Hortense prepares her school for a hurricane, while the white teacher makes it all about herself; in the end, Queenie and Bernard only acknowledge the true damage racism inflicts when it looks like they, a white couple, might be victims.

Levy’s tale, and Edmundson’s well-crafted retelling, leaves its protagonists with decades of our history still in their future. The recent treatment of the Windrush generation shows that not enough has changed – we are, in every way, still a small-minded island.

Continues until 30 April

The Reviews Hub Score

Well-crafted adaptation

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