Small Island

Adapted by Helen Edmundson, based on the novel by Andrea Levy
National Theatre
National Theatre

Leah Harvey as Hortense and C J Beckford as Michael Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Aisling Loftus as Queenie and Andrew Rothney as Bernard Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Gershwyn Eustache Jnr as Gilbert and Leah Harvey as Hortense Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Aisling Loftus as Queenie and Leah Harvey as Hortense Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Leah Harvey as Hortense and Shiloh Coke as Celia Credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

As people around the planet protest that Black Lives Matter, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to stream Rufus Norris’s production of Small Island which premièred last year in the Olivier Theatre.

It is a three-hour adaptation of the novel by Andrea Levy that traces the fortunes of three people from the Caribbean who come to post-war Britain and of an English woman with whom their lives overlap. It starts off in pre-war Jamaica, which could be the small island of the title, sees young black men volunteering to join the RAF and fight for what they have been raised to think of as “the Mother Country” and then presents the reception they and other first-generation immigrants met when they arrived: the Windrush generation.

It concentrates on the personal lives of these few individuals but their stories show society in microcosm and explore both black and white experience. From the opening, when cinematic images capture the fury of a Caribbean hurricane, through political rallies for independence, British blitz to the arrival of the Windrush, there is a background of action that provides an epic quality to the production.

Jamaican Hortense (Leah Harvey) is a young teaching assistant strictly brought up by an ultra-pious uncle. English Queenie (Aisling Loftus) grows up on her family’s pig farm. Both dream of escape to a different life. They do get away, but not to the lives they have dreamt of. For Hortense’s cousin Michael (C J Beckford) and fellow Jamaican Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), neither signing up for service, nor on their return to Britain when war is over, deliver what is promised.

Levy and this production give a very strong picture of the level of prejudice, from the violence of GIs from the segregationist Southern States met in an English country town cinema and dyed-in-the-wool colonialist attitudes to the ignorance of even those Brits who reach out in friendship, but it is not one-sided picture. Hortense herself can be quite stuck-up, thinks her relatively pale skin can bring privilege and treats her lively friend Celia (Shiloh Coke) despicably.

There has had to be some condensation in putting this long novel on stage. Some of Hortense’s husband Bernard’s story is lost for instance (so Andrew Rothney get’s little chance to gain any sympathy for him). There is a point when the interwoven storylines feel in need of resolution and they draw together just in time, though with events becoming increasingly painful, with the audience much aware of their ironic overlap than the people to whom they are happening, but Loftus, Harvey and Eustache make their lives real and truly moving and there is a beautiful cameo from David Fielder as Bernard’s shell-shocked father.

Watch this. It will be three hours well spent.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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