Play: Small Island
Theatre: National Theatre
Playwright: Helen Edmundson, an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island
Director: Rufus Norris
Review by Joy Francis
Andrea Levy’s beloved Orange-Prize winning novel Small Island has already been successfully adapted for television by the BBC. So, having it staged at the National Theatre, a few months after her death (with her blessing) inevitably means heightened expectations.
Ripples of concern at the play’s all white creative team, including a white male director in the shape of the National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris, are audible. The irony is hard to ignore with a story steeped in Caribbean colonial history and the Windrush experience, the latter amplified with the ongoing Home Office scandal.
When discussing her motivation for writing the book, and black people’s role in WWII, Levy said: “Caribbean people got left out of the telling of that story, so I am attempting to put them back into it. But I am not telling it from only a Jamaican point of view. I want to tell stories from the black and white experience. It is a shared history.”
Set in Jamaica and England, Small Island centres around five characters. Spiky and strong-willed teacher Hortense (Leah Harvey) whose light skin sets her apart and imbues her with notions of superiority, holds a torch for her cousin, the mischievous Michael (CJ Beckford). He escapes the confines of his religious upbringing in Jamaica, after causing a scandal by romancing a white Christian teacher, by heading to England and joining the RAF.
Butcher’s daughter Queenie (Aisling Loftus) takes up with Michael when her straitlaced husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney) is presumed dead after the war, and takes in earnest joker, Jamaican-born Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) as a lodger. Gilbert signs up to fight for the British and ends up in an unromantic pact with Hortense when she lends him money to go to England on the understanding that he marries and ‘sends’ for her.
The staging is nothing short of spectacular with a 40-strong ensemble. Cinematic-level projections of precious archive footage, including news footage of Windrush arrivals, are interspersed with scenes of a ferocious hurricane, Jamaica’s lushness and Britain’s bleakness. The actors add a ghostly dimension when they serve as moving silhouettes behind the billowing screen.
Katrina Lindsay’s grade A set, combined with Rufus Norris’ ambitious direction, whip up moments of magic and wonder, with cast members and props imaginatively emerging and disappearing from below and above the stage. This well-crafted choreography helps to keep the weighty three hour, 10 minute production (with a much-needed 20 minute interval) buoyant.
As the book is ‘epic in scale,’ the play’s plot and narrative choices are revealing. We see Michael and Hortense as children growing up in Jamaica, with her as narrator, expressing ambitions to be a teacher and live a bigger life.
In England we witness the spectrum of unsophisticated racism as aspiring lawyer Gilbert struggles to be gainfully employed post war amid monkey calls and a chorus of ‘go back home’. The dehumanising nature of racism doesn’t always land convincingly, particularly the scene where Gilbert is blocked by racist staff from trying to collect the right consignment, which feels heavy-handed.
What also doesn’t sit comfortably is Bernard’s characterisation, despite a quality job by Andrew Rothney. He is almost too one note where Levy’s take is more nuanced. A troubled man, his conflicted nature is dwarfed in the play by his vociferous and unrelenting bigotry and small-mindedness.
The cast is impressive, though the stand out performance is Leah Harvey’s Hortense. Her overbearing pride and self-righteousness, channelled through a commanding presence, is highly watchable. Hortense’s tense, hilarious and fleeting moments of vulnerability with Gershwyn Eustache Jnr’s engaging Gilbert are wonderfully realised. “My face distresses her,” he jokes.
However, the absence of Hortense’s struggle to be a teacher in England, after holding an elevated status in the Caribbean as a light skinned woman, is a missed opportunity. Most of the tension with English culture is experienced through Gilbert, whereas Hortense’s voice seems less potent than Queenie’s in the second half and is constrained within the walls of her crumbling home.
Although Levy is known for her barbed humour, the comedic elements are sometimes overplayed at the expense of the more subtle and emotional plot points. Key dialogue is often drowned out by laughter as the audience feels primed for an all-out comedy.
Small Island isn’t perfect. It is moving, frustrating, funny, beautiful and occasionally overwrought. What it signals is that our stories are big enough, important enough and translate well enough to be staged with high production values on a major British stage. What will be even more impressive, poignant and a testament to Levy’s aspiration (and the Windrush generation) is when the creative team looks as colourful as the cast.