After the painful national debate around the poor treatment of the Windrush Generation, it is appropriate that the National Theatre should showcase their story.
A high-quality production does that story proud. Small Island is drama on an epic scale. British author Andrea Levy first published her novel Small Island 15 years ago.
It won the Whitbread prize and The Guardian hailed it as “one of the defining books of the decade.” The BBC successfully serialised it in a TV drama.
All this before the Windrush scandal sharpened this story’s relevance to a scalpel, digging into the national spine. The National Theatre’s production, an adaptation by Helen Edmundson, is the first attempt to tell this tale on stage.
This helps the show keep its momentum, if at first characters can seem a little dwarfed.
The story revolves around two women, one black (Hortense) one white (Queenie), whose lives intertwine in post-war London. There is a lot of build-up of their “back stories” (the show runs for 3hrs 20mins).
Both of them had difficult backgrounds which they escaped through marriage – a reminder of how many women did at this time.
We start with Hortense’s childhood in pre-war Jamaica, which is very well captured by this enormous cast. Indeed, it seems such a fun place, you wonder why anyone wanted to leave. I’m not sure if the rural poverty is properly depicted.
Still Hortense’s childhood was clearly difficult, as the poor relation of a strictly religious family. She grows up to be a slightly prissy school teacher, played perfectly by the captivating Leah Harvey.
She has remarkable stage presence for a young actor. Eventually she escapes with the incompatible Gilbert – the equally wonderful Gershwyn Eustache Jnr.
Queenie, played by the lovable Aisling Loftus, has an equally troubled childhood on a pig farm in Lincolnshire – one bloody scene is clearly attempting to convert some of the audience to vegetarianism.
She first escapes with her larger-than-life aunt – a super Beattie Edney – to a London sweet shop. But when the aunt chokes to death on a coconut ice, Queenie falls into the arms of the hapless Bernard – Andrew Rothney playing well. Again, an escape through marriage.
The link between these two women is Hortense’s cousin Michael – the suave CJ Beckford. He is stationed in England during the war where he comes across Queenie.
She is broad minded, forward thinking and critical of the racism of the time. There is a wonderful scene where Queenie stands up to American GIs who shockingly want to make their fellow black servicemen sit at the back of the cinema.
When Hortense and Gilbert eventually move in with Queenie in post-war Earl’s Court, they find London to be a bleak place, not at all the dream they had expected.
And racism is everywhere, especially when Queenie’s husband returns, fresh from the horrors of the Indian partition, suffering from mental illness that expresses itself with hatred.
The acting by all five main actors is outstanding, not least when Aisling Loftus gives birth live on stage. There are plenty of other highly successful cameos. David Fielder steals the audience’s heart as Queenie’s silent father-in-law, Arthur.
Johann Myers is the colourful Elwood, Jacqueline Boatswain the austere, remote Miss Ma, and the excellent Sandra James-Young the lovable grandmother, Miss Jewel. She sleeps in the kitchen to be close to her granddaughter.
Small Island is perhaps better suited to TV drama than the stage. But this epic will become a classic of the National’s repertoire.
Small Island plays at the National Theatre until August 10. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
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