Writer: Helen Edmundson
Direction: Rufus Norris
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
With further indignities heaped on the Windrush generation on the very day that The National Theatre’s new production of Small Island faced the press, this adaptation of the late Andrea Levy’s 2004 multi-award-winning novel couldn’t be more timely. With uncertainty over their UK status still unresolved, Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, directed by Rufus Norris, takes us back to the beginning where England was the spiritual home a small Jamaican community dreamed of finding.
When Hortense’s beloved cousin Michael joins the RAF to escape a local scandal along with ladies’ man Gilbert, the seemingly remote Second World War sends the men to Britain where they meet Queenie who treats them both with respect that few locals can muster. With a marriage of convenience to Gilbert allowing Hortense to join them, a new life begins but England is less welcoming than they hoped.
With its focus on multiple narrative voices and broad sweep of twentieth-century history, adapting Levy’s epic novel is an ambitious undertaking for the National. Yet her writing lends itself to dramatization with this theatrical approach to Small Islandfollowing a 2009 TV adaptation as well as a three-part version of The Long Songlast Christmas. For the stage version which will itself be screened via NT Live on 27 June, Edmundson straightens out the chronology, so events run in forward motion from the mid-1920s to 1948 while cutting between the perspectives of Hortense, Queenie and Gilbert.
At well over three hours, with the interval approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes into the show, Small Islandis a mammoth undertaking, packed with character-building incidents, backstories and context that emphasise both the betrayal of Jamaican men who fought for the UK in the war and of the fantasy notion of England that many had harboured since their childhoods. The cumulative effect of this across the show, along with scenes of racist taunts and, worse, refusal to even acknowledge the humanity of the new arrivals, is as brutal and uncomfortable as it should be.
There are a lot of scenes in this faithful version of Small Island, not all of which are truly vital to the plot, particularly in the earliest part of the play dealing with the Jamaican childhood which, despite Jon Driscoll’s provocative projection design, feels lethargic and is then abandoned for almost an hour. Towards the end of the first Act, there is some impatience for the three narratives to converge, while arguably in the need to tie up loose ends in the shorter Act II, too little time is given to Gilbert and Hortense’s rapid disillusionment as well as the transformative love story.
What this production does so well, however, is to create rich and engaging characters that the audience care about (or hate) so much that they are cheered at key moments, or on press night jeered by a particularly involved viewer creating much hilarity. Leah Harvey’s Hortense is prim and refined, a proud woman who revels in her status as a teacher in Jamaica and the lighter skin which the locals coo over. Yet there is a fierce determination in there too, a desire to escape by any means possible to the life she wants, at which point Harvey conveys well the disgust with her new home as well as the uncertainty of her relationship with the husband she barely knows.
Aisling Loftus is a delight as the hospitable Queenie, charming the audience from the outset with her warm, confiding manner and the openness with which she welcomes Michael and Gilbert. Queenie is a comedy character in many ways, one who frequently puts her foot in it while trying to be helpful, but as she also contracts an awkward but convenient marriage after which her husband Bernard heads to the war, Loftus finds Queenie’s strength and independence, a sort of British stoicism that is both amusing and, at times, full of pathos.
It is through Gilbert that we see the poor treatment Jamaican servicemen and immigrants faced, but Gershwyn Eustache Jnr makes him an incredibly charismatic creation with an easy charm and enthusiasm for life that makes his narrative so fascinating. And while Gilbert endures the suspicion and fear his skin colour creates in England, proud of his war record and certain of his right to equality, he stands up to his tormentors which in Eustache Jnr’s performance is full of humanity.
There is an easy flow to Rufus Norris’s direction facilitated by Katrina Lindsay’s impressionistic set, packing plenty of material into the show’s long running time with only the occasional sag in momentum as we wait a little too long for the protagonists to finally come together. With uncertainty still hanging over the men and women who arrived by invitation in 1948, it is Driscoll who steals the show as silhouetted travellers board a projected Windrush filled with hope at the end of Act I. This production suggests they may have merely exchanged one small island for another.
Runs until: 10 August 2019 | Image: Brinkhoff Moegenburg