Theatre Review: Small Island // National Theatre

A must-see production from the National Theatre At Home series, Rufus Norris interweaves humour and heartbreak into an incredibly poignant staging of Andrea Levy’s novel. Spanning World War 2 and its aftermath, Small Island tells an incredible tale based on the plight of the Windrush generation.

The show follows three Jamaicans and one English woman, whose lives interweave in serendipitous ways. Three protagonists act as narrators, each breaking the fourth wall to tell their story directly to the audience. Queenie (Aisling Loftus) is desperate to escape her small-town farming lifestyle. Hortense (Leah Harvey) and Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) dream of getting away from their small island, only to be met by our small-minded one – a story which I suspect rings true amongst hundreds of real-life Windrush passengers. 

Photo Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Whilst strong performances from all three of these actors draw us instantly into their lives, Leah Harvey’s Hortense well and truly steals our hearts (and the show). She’s smart, inquisitive and feisty; Harvey encapsulates her character’s honourable and naive nature magnificently. Though there is an entire 40 minutes where she doesn’t come on stage, at the end she is the most memorable. 

The design elements of this show are technically superb, without becoming gimmicky or detracting from the acting. Paul Anderson’s lighting reflects the warmth of Jamaica and coldness of the UK, both in weather and temperament. The HMT Empire Windrush is so realistic it’s hard to believe it’s only a projection; its sheer size seems to protrude from the stage, almost in 3D. As the passengers board the ship, we see their shadows disappear. It is a truly stunning moment.  

Photo Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The boarding of the Windrush is not the only spectacular sight; the play is full to the brim with brilliant moments. In a segregated cinema, there is stark irony in war footage being the backdrop to a racially fuelled fight between Americans and Jamaicans, who are of course on the same side. Wordsworth’s I Wondered Lonely As A Cloud is wistfully recited in a Jamaican accent and dialect. Characters disappear into the floor in the blink of an eye to facilitate seamless scene changes. From hymns to jazz and Jamaican folk, music plays a huge part in determining the tone and atmosphere. You can tell that Norris’ attention to detail permeates every second of his direction.

Photo Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

This production is spotless, but its real strength comes from how deeply invested it makes you in its characters and their struggles (credit is due to Helen Admundson, whose stage adaptation of the original novel enables this). From segregation, discrimination and outright racial abuse, to more subtle microaggressions from those who mean well, the ubiquity of racism is there before our eyes, and it’s as clear as day. This is the perfect play to stream from the NT Archives in the current climate. I implore anyone and everyone to watch it. 

Small Island is available to watch on Drama Online

Words by Franky Lynn.

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