The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Summer 2019
This is the sort of
production a National Theatre was born to do – a sweeping epic with
very human stories at its core. And director Rufus Norris, a large
cast and an extensive design team employ all the National's technical
and financial resources to do it full justice.
dramatic adaptation of Andrea Levy's novel evokes the entire
experience of West Indian immigrants in Britain in the 1940s, and the
white English experience of them, through stories of a handful of
In Jamaica, Hortense
(Leah Harvey) grows up in love with
her cousin Michael (CJ Beckford), but he leaves for Britian to join
the RAF, as does Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr).
England farm girl Queenie (Aisling Loftus) moves to London, where she
enters an unsatisfying marriage with Bernard (Andrew Rothney).
Michael goes off on his
own while Gilbert returns to Jamaica after
the War, and Gilbert and Hortense agree on a marriage of convenience
to enable them both to go to England. Bernard does not return and
Queenie is forced to take in boarders.
she is one of the very few landladies willing to take black tenants,
and Gilbert and Hortense stay with her in a setting much below what
Hortense had expected in the wonderland of Britain.
Both Gilbert and
Hortense are victims of discrimination and abuse, while Queenie is
ostracised by her racist neighbours.
seriously complicating things, and Bernard comes home belatedly to be
shocked by the changes from the world he left behind.
The play ends
with very little really resolved but everyone realising that life in
a newly multicultural Britain will be challenging.
succeeds in making these few characters' experiences evoke an entire
generation's, largely through effective use of a background cast of
more than fifty and impressive staging effects, while never losing
sight of the specific human experience of the central figures.
of the main characters, with the partial exception of the
self-centred and aloof Michael, goes through traumatic changes that
either lead to growth and maturing or betray an inability to grow and
Leah Harvey takes
Hortense from girlish happiness through the
hardened bitterness of losing Michael and the calculated self-control
of the deal with Gilbert, to the deep disappointment with life in
Britain, and then on to a re-awakend capacity for warmth and concern
Aisling Loftus's Queenie
has a parallel journey, from
youthful excitement through disappointment to a new strength and
maturity, with the differences from Hortense's adventure underlining
the gaps between white and black.
Gershwyn Eustache Jnr
lets us watch
and admire the seemingly shallow and happy-go-lucky Gilbert stand up
under disappointment and revrsals and prove himself the finest man in
And Andrew Rothney keeps
Bernard from becoming merely the
one-dimensional racist he could easily be by making us feel the real
confusion of a man discovering he is no longer in control of his
Small Island is over three hours in length. But it is much shorter than many ninety-minute plays, so involved, enriched and carried along by it are we.
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