Small Island – National Theatre at Home

Reviewer: Eve Newstead

Writer: Andrea Levy

Adaptation by: Helen Edmundson

Director: Rufus Norris

“Am I to be the servant and you the master fi all of time? Because you white? We can work together. You no see? Man we must. Otherwise we just go on fighting each other to the end.” Thinking these frustrated lines were from a play, not set in 1948, but in today’s Britain, would be an easy mistake to make. It is devastating that the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations are laying bare the same myth of a multicultural Britain which has endured since the Windrush generation of Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island.

Helen Edmundson adapted Levy’s Orange Prize-winning work for stage in 2019. Its premiere was recognised as being extremely relevant preceding the Windrush scandal. Now, it’s been released for streaming by National Theatre and, again, is infuriatingly contemporary. What has progressed for Black British people in over seventy years? Not nearly enough; it is impossible to overlook the fact of the production’s all-white creative team.

Set in the aftermath of WWII, Small Island journeys from Jamaica to London, following the interconnected lives of three diverse people hoping for a new life. Much of the plot is recollection, spanning their lives up until they meet. Hortense (Leah Harvey), stiff with propriety when we meet her, is left heartbroken when her adored cousin Michael (CJ Beckford) leaves for the RAF. She seeks her own escape. When joker ex-soldier Gilbert Joseph (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) offers her the chance, the two enter into a marriage of opportunity and Gilbert leads the way in their move to London. Hortense’s utopian expectation that “England will welcome me with open arms because of my pale, pale skin and my education,” are ruined when she arrives to join Gilbert in facing a racist, hostile London. The couple’s landlord, Queenie (Aisling Loftus), has also used marriage as a means to escape. And when her racist, lacklustre husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney) is at war, she finds a new sense of self through her lodgers and, in particular, the arms of Michael.

Opening with a hurricane shredding through a Jamaican schoolhouse, Small Island is epic in scope. However, Levy’s polyphonic narrative mode remains fiercely personal. Edmundson’s adaptation manages the elaborate structure of the novel masterfully. The political and the intimate are intrinsically linked throughout. Individuals make space for their tales against the expansive, shifting backdrop designed by Katrina Lindsay. Cinematic projections of archive footage and shots of the Caribbean Sea, Lincolnshire and London, partnered with Rufus Norris’s direction of a dynamic 40 cast, provide an exceptional viewing experience. In one stand-out scene, archive footage of Empire Windrush frames the screen as the silhouettes of actors portray the crowds climbing to board the ship for their crossing. The music is flawlessly matched – fast strings rise in momentum with a pedal note unmoving to evoke a sense of foreboding.

The three leads are matched in strength and are all incredibly watchable. Each actor portrays the complexities of being inspiringly brave but also imperfectly human. Harvey’s Hortense is uptight yet vulnerable, Eustache Jnr’s Gilbert down-trodden but cheeky, and Loftus’s Queenie warm and open-armed as well as ignorant. Little of their personalities is left on the page.

When Lord Kitchener stepped off Empire Windrush singing “London is the Place for Me” he echoed the voices of thousands who had suffered colonial socialisation. In reality, London offered none of its promised greatness for the “children of the empire”, instead, it insisted they were unwelcome outsiders. Small Island is being streamed to coincide with Windrush Day (22nd June 2020), but it is no secret that we don’t need to look back that far to identify a similar rhetoric on race in Britain. This play is undeniably relevant but it is also beautiful, entertaining and inspiring.

Runs here until 25th June 2020

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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