Small Island is not new, but this journey between two world wars and two continents feels freshly relevant in an epic theatrical production at the National Theatre.
Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel is a vast tale of love, hope and racial identity. The detail, scope and time scale of her story-telling is immense (indeed it inspired a two part film version in 2009).
In Helen Edmundsen’s evocative stage adaptation, Small Island roars with life. Katrina Lindsay’s set is transportive and transformative, capturing the chaos of a Jamaican hurricane or the bustle of London’s West End with minimal scenery and maximum impact. Video projections, immersive soundscapes amp up the atmosphere, and immaculate costumes capture the nipped in waist and elegant millinery of the 1940s.
Director Rufus Norris deftly balances the breadth of time and geography with the intimacy of each individual, so we feel invested in the characters’ fates. Through a lively three hours, humour stays at the forefront without ever undermining the suffering, desperation and discrimination that shades the narrative.
Aisling Loftus and Andrew Rothney in Small Island. Photo by Brinkhoff Moegenburg
We experience the story from the perspective of two heroines, across two countries. First we meet Hortense, played with hoity-toity haughtiness by Leah Harvey. Brought up to believe that her light skin will guarantee a golden life, Hortense’s romantic dreams are dashed by a simpering blonde American. After her beloved Michael enlists to fight for ‘the Motherland’ as an RAF pilot, there’s little left for Hortense on the small island of Jamaica. And she decides to join forces with jovial Gilbert (a charming Gershwyn Eustace Jnr) to find a better life in Britain.
On the other side of the world in Lincolnshire, Queenie jumps at a chance to swap farming for a glamourous shop girl's life in London. But to keep her urban freedom, she has to marry emotionally repressed, stiff upper-lipped Bernard (Andrew Rothney). Aisling Loftus plays Queenie with gumption and gusto, exuding warmth as she opens up her heart and home.
As the departure of HMS Windrush brings two cultures together the stories entwine, building a complex web of romance, resentment, ambition and bitter sacrifice.
It’s the kind of epic adventure that sucks you in and makes you gasp with each twist and turn. The National Theatre press night audience were so invested there were heckles and hollers along with all the laughter and tears.
|What||Small Island, National Theatre review|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
28 Oct 20 – 01 Jan 21, From 28 October, full dates tbc
|Price||£15 - £45|
|Website||Click here to book and for more information|