After the recent Windrush Generation government scandal, this National Theatre production of Small Island couldn’t have come at a better time. Based on Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel and adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, it tells the stories of two families, one white and one black leading up to the arrival of immigrant workers from the Caribbean on the Empire Windrush in 1948.
The first act of Small Island seesaws between Jamaica where we meet the young Hortense (played by Leah Harvey) whose story we follow throughout the play and England where Queenie (Aisling Loftus), a country girl who is desperate to move to London. We also meet Michael (C J Beckford) who comes and goes as the story develops and is the link between the two families and Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) who takes the story from pre-war, through the war and into peacetime.
The first act is sprawling, epic theatre that utilises the enormous Olivier stage with its revolve to the nth degree. There are projections on a vast cyclorama at the rear of the stage, news footage, hurricanes, sunsets, people popping up from under the stage and disappearing down again, the breaking of the fourth wall and the almost constant moving of the large cast of twenty six actors and sixteen supernumeraries (extras in film parlance) and at times it seems there are even more as they run away from storms, fight, dance, sing or board the Windrush via a tall gangway. It has an almost cinematic quality with a superb soundtrack from composer Benjamin Kwasi Burrell.
The second half is much more intimate and at times is swamped by the size of the stage but we’re now in 1948 and Gilbert has arrived from the Caribbean to make a life for himself and Hortense who he’s married. They’re looking for the “golden life” in post-war Britain but they’re in for a big disappointment. Hortense arrives a little later than Gilbert and can’t believe the state of the one room that Gilbert has found for them. She arrives with high hopes but naively she’s not aware of the troubles that immigrants found themselves in when they arrived in cold, grey England with signs saying “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs” in the windows of boarding houses and terrible racism on the streets. Luckily Gilbert who met Queenie during the war when he was posted to England, remembers where she lives and with Queenie’s husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney) missing in action, she offers him a room to rent.
Eventually, the stories of the two families come together in a finale that’s an emotional punch to the stomach that made the audience gasp out loud.
Small Island is a sweeping drama of a period in Britain’s history that it should really be ashamed of and it’s superbly directed by Rufus Norris. There are resonances to the post-referendum period we’re currently living in with the name calling of immigrants and the calls for them to go home to where they came from.
The performances of the main players are all marvellous with Eustache Jnr the standout as he gives Gilbert a charming, charismatic swagger that gets him through the war and the racism he finds when he arrives in England. His aim is to become a lawyer, but he realises that this is just a pipedream. Loftus is also superb as Queenie who has a heart of gold but struggles with loneliness as she waits for Bernard to return home or be declared dead.
If I had one minor criticism is that Small Island could do with a little pruning here and there. The first act is just under two hours and the second, around one so with the twenty-minute interval, it’s a long evening. At times there seems to be too much emphasis on Queenie and Bernard’s story when it’s the immigrants whose journey is really the important one.
It’s a great shame that Andrea Levy who died in February of this year at the age of just 62 wasn’t around to see her novel turned into a major stage production as a lot of it is based on the lives of her family and their migration from the Caribbean.
Small Island tells the story of a small island, Jamaica where people loved with big hearts and the big island of Britain where people lived with small minds.
Review by Alan Fitter
Andrea Levy’s epic, Orange Prize-winning novel bursts to new life on the Olivier stage. A company of 40 tells a story which journeys from Jamaica to Britain, through the Second World War to 1948 – the year the HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury.
Adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, Small Island follows three intricately connected stories. Hortense yearns for a new life away from rural Jamaica, Gilbert dreams of becoming a lawyer, and Queenie longs to escape her Lincolnshire roots. Hope and humanity meet stubborn reality as the play traces the tangled history of Jamaica and the UK.
Paul Bentall, Jacqueline Boatswain, Phoebe Frances Brown, Chereen Buckley, Cavan Clarke, Shiloh Coke, Beatie Edney, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Adam Ewan, David Fielder, Amy Forrest, Leah Harvey, John Hastings, Stephanie Jacob, Sandra James-Young, CJ Johnson, Natey Jones, Trevor Laird, Rebecca Lee, Aisling Loftus, Johann Myers, Daniel Norford, Andrew Rothney.
Director – Rufus Norris
Playwright – Helen Edmundson
Set and Costume Designer – Katrina Lindsay
Projection Designer – Jon Driscoll
Lighting Designer – Paul Anderson
Composer – Benjamin Kwasi Burrell
Sound Designer – Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Movement Director – Coral Messam
Fight Director – Kate Waters
Music Consultant – Gary Crosby
Dialect Coach – Hazel Holder
Associate Set and Costume Designer – Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey
Associate Projection Designer – Gino Ricardo Green
Staff Director – Anna Himali Howard
Associate Music Director – Shiloh Coke
adapted by Helen Edmundson
based on the novel by Andrea Levy
Running Time: Approx. 3hrs 15min including 20min interval
National Theatre Live broadcast on Thursday 27th June 2019