Watching Small Island on World Book Day felt like an act of fate.
I was lucky enough to study the novel for A level, and it introduced me to the world of Black British fiction and specifically the history of Windrush. Small Island completely revolutionised the stories that I thought Black characters were able to be in and also Black writers were able to tell.
Having already watched the NT Live recording of Small Island during lockdown, I thought I would be able to anticipate a lot of the show, but the experience of watching this sprawling story live in the theatre was quite profound and beautifully overwhelming.
Small Island follows the parallel narratives of Hortense and Gilbert, Black Caribbean migrants to England and Queenie and Bernard, a white British couple who act as their landlords in post WWII Britain. Central to Levy’s novel are her characters and their individual emotional and physical journeys, so Rufus Norris’ direction stays true to Levy’s intentions. The casting in this show was expectational, and it felt like each actor whether in a named role or part of the ensemble was given the opportunity to shine. The ensemble particularly showcased their strength in intensely personal and public moments e.g. the anti-colonial protests in Jamaica or curious bystanders to a private conversation.
The audience is first introduced to Hortense (played by Leonie Elliot), who paints a picture of her life in the Caribbean growing up and her childhood with her cousin, the magnetic Michael Roberts. As someone who has just started to watch Call the Midwife where Elliot plays a Caribbean midwife, the casting of Elliot as Hortense was inspired and added a real fluency to the role. This context also made it quite humorous later on for a moment that I will not spoil…
In retrospect, the show revolves around the invisible threads characters have to Michael Roberts, who, in the way characters like Queenie and Hortense speak about him, seems more like a mythical creature rather than a human being. I was impressed then that the actor who played the younger Michael was able to get across Michael’s cheekiness and charisma from the start, which prepared us for his next arrival. There was therefore a sense of expectation and anticipation and when older Michael (played by Elliot Barnes-Worrel) enters the scene, he commands the stage, strolling in panther-like, in no rush to make his entrance. This surely spoke to his character who is like a lingering presence throughout the play. A stand-out moment was when Worrel jumped onto the table, and landed softly on his feet, barely making a sound. I heard audible gasps from the audience, and that moment perfectly encapsulated everything about the character – only Michael Roberts would be able to do something like that, and Worrel certainly lives up to his legend.
It is a testament to Levy’s writing that each character is so carefully drawn, and I am glad that for the most part, that transferred into the stage adaptation. In Edmundson’s adaptation, however, Hortense is decentred, and Queenie is platformed as the heroine of the story. This shift made it difficult to connect with Hortense as she is not given any monologues once she arrives in England. A key example of this is when her rejection from the teaching school is relayed to us rather than acted out. As we were not able to see this in real-time, it lessened the amount of empathy felt for Hortense. Coupled with the fact that discussions on colourism are given brief mentions, Hortense’s realisation that her ‘golden skin’ will not give her the ‘golden life’ expected in Britain, dulls this painful moment.
Levy expertly weaves all the narratives together and the string of coincidences in this play are also reflected in the movement choreographed by Coral Messam (Small Axe, Lovers Rock) and the malleability of the revolving set. I particularly enjoyed the moments where Queenie, Hortense, Michael and Gilbert were onstage together. The revolving stage felt like they were circling each other, always in each other’s orbit, but their paths never crossing. This also felt like a nod to the fact that Jamaica and England are both ‘small islands’, so there is that sense of possibility they could have met.
Small Island was first published in 2004 and its commentary on Britainss racism is still striking. This was heightened for me as I watched it on the day of the transport strikes and its irony was not lost on me. The white Britons’ disdain and ignorance for the migrants who they believe came for ‘teeth and glasses’ when in fact they came to prop up the British economy after WWII, was the same disdain the current government has shown for TFL workers (a great proportion of whom are Black and from Global Majority backgrounds) whose labour is not adequately reflected in their wages. Therefore, Gilbert’s monologue at the end where he poignantly begs Bernard to see his humanity is still so powerful. It is a testament to Marrett Jr.’s rousing performance that we are able to be there for both Gilbert’s highs and lows.
The breadth of Small Island is incredible and there is a sense that Levy is a historian as well as a storyteller, with how deftly she weaves in historical fact and fiction. This is buoyed by the set as it felt like no expenses were spared in bringing this history to life. Notably, the projections of archive footage from the British Film Institute, accompanied by the composition by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell really heightened emotional moments and reminded me of the aliveness of this history.
At the end, the whole audience erupted in a standing ovation, and rightly so. It felt like we had been collectively enveloped and transported by this story and the fact that it is grounded in history, makes it that much more of a necessary viewing for all audiences.
Small Island runs until Saturday 30th April