Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, directed by the National’s artistic director himself, Rufus Norris, takes on the five hundred pages of Andrea Levy’s novel with the sure-of-itself smoothness a production on the Olivier’s stage tends to guarantee. The relationship between Britain and Jamaica through the Second World War and Windrush is shown through following three characters making the journey from Jamaica to London in the 1940s, and their lives overlapping with each other, and a white British woman.
From disparate beginnings, the main characters end up in a London house together owned by Queenie (Aisling Loftus). Nothing has turned out as it ought to have. Hortense, played by the hilarious, assured Leah Harvey, cannot work as a school teacher as she did in Kingston, didn’t land the man she thought she might, and is faced with poverty in a hostile country. Her husband in name only, Gilbert (a fantastic Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), is not studying law as he hoped to after his service in the war, but works for the Post Office with banally racist colleagues. Queenie’s husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney) is gone: she rents out rooms in his house to Black lodgers to keep herself afloat.
Jamaica largely figures in the first act; the second of this hefty three-and-a-quarter-hour epic is based in this house, the skeletal outline of which (rickety staircase, cold stove, hanging windows) is enough to bring out this living situation’s discomfort. At first, the narrative swirls around its central characters in both England and Jamaica, opening at a point in each of their lives in turn and then going back through their histories, working forwards to reach that point again.
And we feel swirled, too: Small Island is intensely cinematic, its concave backdrop lit with projections by Jon Driscoll that are suggestive of animated watercolours, occasionally parting to allow a screen out. Gilbert and Queenie take a disastrous cinema trip, and the monochrome film advances towards us. Characters run out of a slight haze at the stage’s back and it’s as if they become real, called out of memory by narration. There’s some fun choreography directed by Coral Messam when farm-raised Queenie comes to London, set against black and white adverts with mirrors on that revolving stage. Everything becomes more overtly theatrical when we first come to the Mother Country, more self-consciously playful; perhaps as Britain in this period is firmer, more familiar ground for Norris, or Edmundson, or the National. More room for license.
Small Island is a sympathetic and accurate representation of racism then, which feeds into racism now: it’s funny, moving, and extremely well-acted. I haven’t read other reviews yet, but I expect they will highlight the momentousness of this play’s bringing the Windrush generation and issues of immigration and empire to this space. As ever, however, the burden of representation impedes.
Because Small Island is like a lot of plays major theatres like to program about race: needed, and important, and excruciating to watch in a majority-white audience with slurs hurled about with increasing abandon. That the play’s chronology becomes more linear and thus Britain-centred as it goes on exaggerates this. Though it will prompt some people to interrogate the racism in the world they live in now, these will most likely be the people already thinking about these things. Otherwise, the audience can laugh and gasp at these abhorrent incidents – and the laughs and the gasps are both sharply dialed up in the second half – because the setting feels distant enough.
There are other problems: once Queenie enters, she seems to take up a lot more space than some of the others. Hortense is an excellently drawn character, led to expect a relatively easy life in England due to her light skin and upbringing; but she loses her love, Michael (CJ Beckford) to two white women, and in turn humiliates then supplants her darker, less “proper” friend Celia (the multitalented Shiloh Coke, also associate music director). The play doesn’t have the time to pull apart the chain of desires here, the way darker Black women are left behind or out completely. As the play goes on, little time is devoted to Gilbert and Hortense’s growing intimacy, but plenty to Queenie’s strange inability to understand Hortense when she speaks in the same accent as the house’s Black men. The SS Empire Windrush is shown for a heartrending moment which will feel too brief for some.
Levy, who died in February, should have seen this production; I’m grateful that I was able to, despite a lingering feeling that Small Island is as frustrating as it is impressive.
Small Island is on at the National Theatre until 10th August. More info and tickets here.