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Small Island

Adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Andrea Levy
National Theatre
Olivier Theatre (National Theatre)

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Leemore Marrett Jr as Gilbert and Leonie Elliott as Hortense Credit: Johan Persson
Leonie Elliott as Hortense Credit: Johan Persson
Martin Hutson as Bernard and Mirren Mack as Queenie Credit: Johan Persson

This fluent and engaging production of Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Andrea Levy's novel Small Island, with its huge cast of 29, centres on three characters, opening with the Jamaican childhood of Hortense in the care of a reasonably wealthy family and following her years later in 1948 as she joins her husband Gilbert, one of the Windrush arrivals in England.

She is shocked by what she finds. It's not just that she is expected to sleep, eat and live with Gilbert (Leemore Marrett Jr) in one tiny bedroom, but that both are subject to hostility, distrust and racism from many of the white population.

Even their white landlady Queenie (Mirren Mack) is hassled by racist neighbours who want her to kick out the black people they say will bring down the area. Worse comes from her husband Bernard (Martin Hutson), who, upon returning home after many years in military service, immediately starts ordering the black tenants to leave the house.

Despite the three hours ten minutes running time, the play works in broad brush strokes with events happening in quick succession with characters rarely developing any great complexity. The most likeable is the ever-friendly, quick-witted Gilbert, easy-going with everyone though not afraid to fight a racist. Hortense (Leonie Elliott) is mostly prim and reserved, but there is a huge positive response from the audience when she softens to the point of kissing Gilbert.

The show has such a keen eye for humour that there are rarely many minutes between the laughter that can sometimes be simply visual as in the death of Queenie’s aunt.

The imaginative visual flair extends to the huge back animated projections from Jon Driscoll who gives us Caribbean hurricanes, the English countryside and people walking onto the Empire Windrush. Katrina Lindsay’s sets add to a sense of place that has an appearance of simplicity without being overwhelmed by the size of the Olivier stage.

This welcome revival of a much-praised show first seen at the National in 2019 is an entertaining, gentle, believable slice of English and Jamaican history that should be told.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna