Looking around the auditorium moments before Small Island started, there was electrifying energy…
…it was then I knew we were about to embark on something special. Andrea Levy’s legacy lives on.
Small Island is based on the late Andrea Levy’s modern classic novel of the same name. It has been adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson and directed by Rufus Norris. It tells the story of three interlinked lives – Hortense, who is in search of a new life away from Jamaica. Gilbert, who, having served in the RAF during World War II, is part of the Windrush generation. He has high hopes of opportunities in ‘the mother country‘ only to be faced with the harsh realities of being an immigrant in post-war Britain, and finally Queenie, the daughter of a pig farmer who longs to escape her Lincolnshire roots and create a life worth living. She becomes landlady to Hortense and Gilbert at a time when many landlords would not accept black tenants.
This magnificent production is brought to life by a highly skilled company of forty who give outstanding performances providing all the intricate detail and nuances required with the supporting cast portraying multiple roles. Playing on the Olivier stage the set design includes a revolving stage, removable locations with below stage entries that were executed with slick precision. Visually it was beautiful, both set and projections as they transported us from Jamaica to the hustle and bustle of London. The boarding of the HMT Empire Windrush was particularly moving.
With a run time of over three hours, you may be inclined to think that Small Island could be a hard watch, but you are pulled along this epic journey with great ease. The cast made you feel like you were included in the play with some scenes where the three leads address the audience directly. Although theatre etiquette occasionally went out of the window with some members of the audience openly vocalising their thoughts during the play, this was handled with great professionalism and a testament to how captivated we all were with this brilliant piece of theatre.
There are some outstanding performances in this production. Noticeably, Gershwyn Eustace Jr who oozes charm and charisma with an effortlessly commanding standout performance as the loveable Gilbert. Leah Harvey hits a home run and is equally captivating as the strong-willed Hortense. Aisling Loftus impresses as the open-minded and resourceful Queenie.
One of the great things about this production is that it doesn’t dilute the story to make it palatable to white audiences. Small Island was told through the eyes of the people who were part of the Windrush generation and for that, I’m be pleased.
Review by Kojo Kamara
Small Island runs at the National Theatre until 10th August. Find out more here.