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.
Helen Edmundson's 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 characters.
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
Meanwhile in 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.
Being unusually unprejudiced,
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
Michael reappears briefly,
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.
Director Norris 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.
Each 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 mature.
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 for others.
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 the
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 world.
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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