Review: National Theatre at Home's 'Small Island'


5/5 stars

This week, the National streamed the much appraised Small Island. Originally staged in 2019 to sold-out audiences, Small Island is Helen Edmunson’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel. Through Edmunson’s  writing and Rufus Norris’ direction, there is born a genius play in which ‘hope and humanity meets a stubborn reality’, as the story of Jamaica and England is told from WWII through to Windrush. 

The play begins with an empty stage and a screen in which videos of Jamaica are projected, as clips of traditional and stereotypical British broadcasting recordings narrate the pictures. The crackled received pronunciation juxtaposes against images of the Caribbean, drawing up the uncomfortable tension of privilege and ignorance brought by colonialism. 

This notion rings very true in today’s climate, as the Black Lives Matter movement is rightfully unearthing the reality of Britain’s troubling relationship with systemic racism. As the beginning scene opens, a storm is brewing, and the sounds of wind and rain are married to an impressive orchestral score. It sets the play up in a tempestuous tone, and it’ll give you chills. 

We start in Kingston and the first character we meet is Hortense (Leah Harvey). In an informal soliloquy she addresses the audience, establishing a connection. She retells the story of her youth and her heartfelt relationship with her cousin Michael (CJ Beckford) - they grow up together. Now adults, Michael is surrounded by scandal and leaves to join the British RAF in shame. Hortense is broken, speaking how she must ‘master the tempest’. This line rings true to every issue in Small Island, as the main characters battle emotional turmoil to survive against the broiling racial tension. 

There is a shift to Lincolnshire, to Queenie’s story (Aisling Loftus). As the play develops, we learn this is not so much a geographical or social shift, as Hortense and Queenie’s lives are intricately linked. Growing up on a farm and then marrying and moving to London, Queenie’s sense of self is uprooted by the Blitz of London and her husband signing up to fight. She learns to cope alone, but finds friendship in the Jamaican soldiers, one being Hortense’s Michael. 

The intertwined lifetimes are a trick of writing, and of course help the story move and hold. But the character’s connections are paramount in signalling the universal interdependency catalysed by the world war. People were depending on people they never thought they would. 

Perhaps the audience’s favourite character is Gilbert, a soldier from Kingston whose life is affected by both Queenie and Hortense. His witty quips on the Briton’s ignorance are lapped up in laughter and applause. He lives in Britain through the war and then moves permanently, boarding the famous Windrush. It is at this point that Bernie Davis’ lighting is at its most stunning and striking. The front of the boat, an image of enormous cultural significance, is projected onto a billowing sheet as silhouettes walk on board. The orchestra booms, rousing a sense of hope as the shadows cheer and wave. But dramatic irony is heightened; Windrush, once synonymous with opportunity, now registers the devastation of racial injustice, at the hand of the Conservative Party scandal. 

Gilbert’s most stand out lines are said during the picture house scene: a tragic microcosm highlighting the permeation of American right wing racism into the British narrative. To the taunting American GIs, Gilbert says: ‘this is England, not Alabama’. But what is this almighty difference? Streaming in 2020, Small Islands’ relevance rings strong and true. Britons are privileged in thinking our country isn’t institutionally racist. Our society is heavy with racial microaggressions and Small Island tells the story of their implication from multiple viewpoints. 

The writing exposes ignorance for what it is: laughable. Gilbert laughs, and says, ‘How come they know nothing about their empire’. Its true, we don’t. But now, we can hope that our colonial past will be taught in all its truth. Small Island is the perfect place to start, as it ‘traces the tangled history between Jamaica and the UK’. It captures theatre’s power to show the nuance in every story, with maximum emotional and intellectual impact. It teaches us about a Britain that is rarely shown in the mainstream, whilst showing how our theatre is a national strength that cannot be lost. 

Small Island is available to stream for free until the 25th June. 

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