This stage adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning novel of the same name, staged in 2019, is unusually prescient, given how relevant the themes are today. Coincidentally, as I write this review, the world marks Windrush Day, marking the 72nd anniversary on which Caribbean individuals and families boarded the HMT Empire Windrush to journey to Britain.
The recent Black Lives Matters protests, along with the past Windrush Scandal makes this adaptation of Small Island (originally staged in 2019) particularly uncomfortable watching. This screening by the National Theatre is a stark reminder of racism which still persists decades after the ship sailed to the Tilbury Docks.
Director Rufus Norris realises Levy’s novel through the weaving of three interconnected stories. The lives of Hortense (Leah Harvey), Queenie (Aisling Loftus), Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr.) and Bernard (Andrew Rothney) are all connected to Michael Roberts (CJ Beckford) who functions as the lynchpin of the group. Small Island is, at its core, a story of dreamers dreaming of better lives. The main characters all are in pursuit of something more than their current situation: Hortense wishes for a better life in England, Gilbert dreams of becoming a lawyer and Queenie wishes to leave the farm she grew up on. We journey with them from Kingston, Jamaica at the start of the Second World War to post-war Britain.
The relationship between these characters becomes a tool towards understanding the relationship between Britain and Jamaica. Small Island does a masterful job at showing the tensions in this relationship: how Afro-Caribbean people were sold the idea of Britain and how this idea did not hold once they arrived in Britain. The play tackles the issue of racist attitudes head on, drawing eerie parallels to sentiments that can be seen resurfacing today.
The inventive use of a rotating stage mimics the cyclical nature of the plot’s structure and of how each story connects to the next. But the focus remains on the characters and their stories. This is coupled with the use of character monologues directed at the audience which make the characters and the stories in Small Island all the more human.
While the cast is large and colourful in its performances, the most captivating performances are by the two leading women played by Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus. Harvey’s portrayal of Hortense is full of gravitas; her presence is felt during every moment of her time on stage. Much of this a tribute to the nuances of Harvey’s acting even to the frown on a stoic and self-assured Hortense. Contrastingly, Loftus’ Queenie is jovial, and her voice carries much of the performance, particularly in the third act of the play and during a highly emotional scene involving Gilbert, Hortense and her husband Bernard.
Considering the themes of the play, which become increasingly grave, and the racism more overt as it progresses, there is a surprising amount of levity and humour. Moments of emotion and tension are often leavened with comedic dialogue between characters, giving Small Island’s rhythm a continuous rise and fall. Juxtaposing humour with serious issues can often detract from the more crucial messages of a work, but I found that it brought a welcome balance.
At a time when Britain is being urged to re-tell a more accurate account of its history and when many are petitioning for BAME writing and literature addressing racism to be made part of the education system, I would say that Small Island should be added to the reading list, if not made essential viewing.
Small Island is compelling and hard-hitting at times. Its success lies in drawing the viewer into the lives of its characters and their stories allowing us to connect, for the length of its run-time, with a past that doesn’t feel all that distant.