Review: Small Island, National Theatre

Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island comes to life most beautifully in this adaptation by Helen Edmundson at the National Theatre

“How come they know nothing about their own empire?”

There’s something glorious about Small Island, its epic scale suiting the National Theatre to a tee as a story about marginalised communities finally breaks free from the Dorfman… Andrea Levy’s novel was memorably adapted for television in 2009 and Helen Edmundson’s version is no less adventurous as it refashions the narrative into a linear story of just over three hours and stellar impact with its focus here on three key characters whom circumstance pushes all together.

Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert with their respective dreams of being a teacher and a lawyer, and Lincolnshire farm daughter Queenie, all searching for their own version of escape and all unprepared for the consequences of smashing headfirst into the real world. For dreams of the ‘motherland’ prove just that for these first-generation immigrants shocked by the hostility of post-war Britain. And Queenie’s hopes of freedom are curtailed as she finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to bank clerk Bernard.

The first act, indeed the whole show, may be lengthy but Edmundson and Norris don’t waste a minute of it. It allows them to layer in all manner of details to flesh out these finely crafted characters as their stories slowly unwind – the almost imperceptible slump of Gilbert’s shoulders as he’s forced to engage with yet another racist, the way Bernard rejects his father’s yearned-for hug for a brusque handshake, every cock of the head that speaks so much for Hortense in all her haughtiness. 

And this all feeds into the social history of it all, the past as a living, breathing thing rather than a fixed set of attitudes. Without prejudice, we’re nudged to probe beyond ‘this is how it was back then’ to really consider the human cost of being at the vanguard of a moment with so much potential, squandered by an enduring imperial mindset. Generationally too, the storytelling can’t help but call forward to the way in which the UK perceives and treats the ‘other’.

It helps too that there’s some exceptional talent at work here. Leah Harvey (one of the OG Emilias lest you forget) is scorchingly good as Hortense, her emotional journey just as intense as crossing the Atlantic; Gershwyn Eustache Jnr electrifies the stage as Gilbert, making us feel every single righteous wrong he faces; and there’s excellent work too from Aisling Loftus as Queenie, full of decency but finding the true cost of being an ally is a steep one indeed.

Creatively, it’s a show that really knows how to maximise the cavernousness of the Olivier. Katrina Lindsay’s design looks deceptively simple but utilises space brilliantly, particularly with its doors that either don’t keep people out or are slammed in faces. Jon Driscoll’s projections are adroitly used too, to remind us of the nearness of this history and the realisation of the Windrush is a breath-takingly powerful and inventive piece of theatrical magic. Brilliant stuff.

Running time 3 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Small Island is booking at the National Theatre until 10th August

Small Island will be broadcast to cinemas by National Theatre Live on 27th June

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