Andrea Levy’s epic story, Small Island, comes to life on the Olivier stage.
The Olivier’s sweeping stage is the perfect setting for Rufus Norris’s latest production at the National Theatre. Andrea Levy’s much-loved, award-winning 2004 novel about Jamaica’s Windrush generation has been brilliantly adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson. Tragically Levy died in February of cancer, aged 62, just before rehearsals for Small Island began.
Small Island depicts the tangled history between Jamaica and the UK, focusing on the diaspora of Jamaican immigrants during the1940’s. Levy’s storytelling is both epic and intimate, illuminating with compassion black and white experiences of this troubled time, offering poignant insights into a world steeped in the historical racism that persists today.
The expansive stage creates scope and depth, and John Driscoll’s projected imagery – including archive footage of the war and the Windrush – is powerful and affecting. Katrina Lindsay’s evocative set and costume design wonderfully recreates the heat of the Caribbean, with cast members dressed in soft sandy tones and hurricanes conjured with swirling chairs.
Three hours simply slip away, as Levy’s vivid narrative immerses us in the lives of her four central protagonists.
We meet young and prissy Hortense, beautifully portrayed by Leah Harvey. Growing up in Jamaica – her mother having left her to be brought up by a God-fearing family – she has genteel pretensions and yearns for a prosperous life in the UK. Harsh realities intervene though, disappointing the young woman’s dreams. Hortense carries a torch for her dashing cousin Michael, a Jamaican Air Force serviceman, played with much charm by CJ Beckford. But Michael sows his seed elsewhere, whilst their lives will unknowingly continue to connect and intersect from afar.
Gershwyn Eustache Jnr is an absolute joy as the loveable Gilbert, who joins the RAF rather than fighting for Jamaican independence. Gilbert is searching for a better life and dreaming of becoming a lawyer. Gentle and feisty, he weaves an irresistible tale to capture the audience’s hearts and affections.
The other star of this show is Aisling Loftus, who as the winsome Lincolnshire lass Queenie completely embodies a down-to-earth, resilient and open-hearted northern girl. Born to the brutal realities of a butcher’s family and desperate to escape, Queenie follows her aunty to London where she meets and marries the unappealing, deeply damaged Bernard (Andrew Rothney) – a man without passion or affection, who offers Queenie nothing more than security. When Bernard goes off to war she takes in lodgers – and the paths of Queenie, Michael, Hortense and Gilbert meet in London, as their futures unfold.
Full-scale melodrama is what The National does best. With a host of gifted creatives at its helm, this marvellous production celebrates talent, tells a proper story with a gargantuan cast, and provides a real sense of theatrical wonder. Nor does it shy away from a topic which is powerful and painful – and one we have we have still not been able to overcome. Racism: persistent and poisonous. “The only difference between us is that your skin is white”, Gilbert responds coolly and eloquently to Bernard’s deluge of racist abuse.
This is a Post-War Britain that has opened its borders but not all its heart – and evidently not all its mind – to living as a community in equality, harmony and joy in our collective differences. How much – or how little – has changed since then?
Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a defining story, successfully transformed into an accessible, big-hearted, emotional roller coaster of a show, brimming with humour, tenderness and righteous anger.
It’s nothing less than a complete triumph, and not to be missed.
Small Island is showing at the National Theatre until 10 August 2019.
London SE1 9PX
Also running at the National Theatre is Follies – be quick though, it finishes on 11 May
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