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Small Island in the Olivier Theatre | Review

In some respects, this is one of those productions that, at least on paper, isn’t supposed to work. There’s a timespan of decades. It’s partly set in Jamaica, and partly in Britain, and it has far too many characters who, for whatever reason, don’t appear to have a rounded worldview. It’s longer than a performance of Les Misérables, and it’s almost relentless in its portrayal of how badly the Windrush generation were treated when they came to Britain – in short, it’s not exactly comfortable viewing.

Adam Ewan and Stephanie Jacob in Small Island (c) Johan Persson.
Adam Ewan and Stephanie Jacob in Small Island (c) Johan Persson.

And yet, partly because of the very direct sense of humour that permeates proceedings, it’s a compelling watch. Hortense (Leonie Elliott) is incredibly snobby, though it can be argued that this is down to the way she was raised, believing what she was told when growing up in Jamaica about the British way of life in “the motherland”, which may have been true for those living ‘upstairs’ in the television drama series Upstairs, Downstairs. But for economic migrants arriving in Britain in the aftermath of World War Two, anything and everything failed to match Hortense’s absurdly high expectations.

There’s some jumping around, in that events don’t, strictly speaking, unfold in forward chronological order. This isn’t problematic, as the narrative cleverly unfolds in such a way that doesn’t reveal everything that happened in a given time period at once. Additional details come to the fore as plot twists, and judging by the audible gasps from the audience on press night, the storyline is not always predictable.

The play’s title is derived from the novel of the same name, which in turn comes from the desire of some of its characters to escape from their ‘small island’ and enjoy making a living in a country with a substantially bigger economy. For Hortense, however, her various teaching qualifications acquired in Jamaica count for nothing as far as the local authority is concerned, and she is disgusted even at the thought of doing more training to qualify as a teacher. Whether one sides with Hortense’s outrage or agrees with the local authority, in this regard, the same rules apply to all.

There is, however, plenty of unfair treatment to be seen – specifically, in a word, racism. Hortense’s husband, Gilbert Joseph (Leemore Marrett Jr), is on the receiving end of derogatory remarks in the workplace just for asking a question. Before that, both he and Michael (Elliot Barnes-Worrell), having disregarded warnings from Elwood (Courtney Winston) that the British Empire is not all as it seems, are discriminated Accommodation is hard to come by, too, with few landlords accepting black people as tenants. Queenie (Mirren Mack) is happy to do so, if only out of economic necessity, precipitated by the continuing absence of her own husband Bernard (Martin Hutson) even after VE Day. The audience had a lot of sympathy for Arthur (David Fielder), Bernard’s father, a non-speaking character with somewhat diminished mental capacity, but a dear man nonetheless.

The backdrops are impressive without being overpowering – there’s a telling sense amongst a London audience of what the second half will be like at the end of the first, as passengers, including Gilbert, climb on board the Empire Windrush. It is perhaps worth noting that it wasn’t the people on the very lowest incomes that emigrated, because they couldn’t afford to leave – Hortense lent Gilbert money for his passage. Queenie, meanwhile, has her own challenges and societal barriers on account of being a woman in a sexist society. Questions are asked at the end about what kind of future a baby born into Britain at that time would face. It is a harrowing thought that the likes of Gilbert and Hortense, had they lived to see the ‘hostile environment’ policy enforced, might have been deported. A powerful, important and relevant production.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

Hortense yearns for a new life away from rural Jamaica, Gilbert dreams of becoming a lawyer and Queenie longs to escape her Lincolnshire roots.

Small Island follows their lives through the Second World War until the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury, where hopes for the future soon meet the stubborn reality of post-war Britain.

Small Island
adapted by Helen Edmundson
based on the novel by Andrea Levy
Now playing
Running Time: 3 hours 5 mins inc a 20 min interval
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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