Small Island by Andrea Levy – National Theatre at Home (Olivier)
The National Theatre’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s exceptionally popular novel Small Island makes for remarkable theatre. This is an achievement, as adapting much-loved books for the stage is a tricky business. Helen Edmundson’s version focuses on three characters, and delivers a harsh, corrective history lesson. Hortense (Leah Harvey) is socially despised as a farmed-out child in inter-war Jamaica, but believes her education and her light skin will see her thrive in London. Demobbed Jamaican airman Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr.) is persuaded to take here there, in a marriage of convenience. In London, their landlady is Queenie (Aisling Loftus), who has escaped a Lincolnshire pig farm upbringing for a marriage to Bernard, a terrifying uptight, damaged character. The story is epic and episodic, moving across eras and through a war, from colonial Jamaica to the promised land of the Windrush generation, but its message is stark: post-war Britain, and indeed the USA, was a grimly racist country where black skin was despised, people lied to exploited, and lives destroyed.
The early scenes of Hortense’s tough upbringing have strong parallels with Jane Eyre, and similarly she trains as a schoolteacher. The racism and cruelty she encounters in Jamaica are nothing compared to what awaits in London, where black people are openly abused in the street, and Queenie receives protests from her neighbours for renting rooms to ‘darkies’. Gilbert experiences the segregationist attitudes of GIs, transplanted to Lincolnshire, and has no choice but to soak up the abuse in London and accept the one room lodgings he must share with his horrified wife. And Queenie experiences the dislocation of war, left to look after Bernard’s elderly father, left unable to speak by the First World War, while Bernard himself vanishes.
The plot, laid out on paper, contains elements of melodrama but on stage it is handled extremely well by director Rufus Norris. The interweaving stories, performed by a large cast, are entirely engrossing and the play seems to present an essential hidden history. Performances are very consistent, and the staging makes imaginative use of the Olivier stage. Katrina Lindsay’s design regularly sinks characters through the floor as scenes change, neatly symbolic of failed hopes and social betrayal. The dramatic ending leaves some hope for the future, at least for Gilbert and Hortense, but achieved in the bitterest of ways. Small Island is a significant production, making a strong political statement through accessible, popular entertainment from National’s largest stage.