Helen Edmondson’s powerful adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel is filled with compassion and understanding but just as importantly it is honest.
Today (22nd June) is Windrush day, marking the day back in 1948 when the Empire Windrush landed in the UK and bringing people from the Caribbean who wanted to start a new life for themselves over here. Therefore it is wonderful timing to watch the stage adaptation of Andrea Levy’s insightful and thoughtful Windrush inspired story.
Bringing three different stories together and taking audiences from Jamaica to the UK, Small Island is a real masterclass in story telling that draws the audience so beautifully into each individual story. Orphaned Hortense wants to start a new life for herself from Jamaica, Gilbert has ambitions of becoming a lawyer and Queenie looks to escape her own Lincolnshire roots. To say anymore about each individual story would spoil the beautiful way that each story becomes intertwined.
Directed with great sensitivity and respect by Rufus Norris, Helen Edmundson’s adaptation manages to keep the audience’s attention on each of the characters and their journeys effortlessly. It is filled with warmth and poignancy through moments that genuinely break the heart – particularly when the themes of prejudice and racism come through as seen when Queenie takes in black immigrants. The language used will (and should) make people of today wince – sharply bringing into focus how shamefully they were treated on first entering a country who should have done more to accept and welcome them. Moments including the way in which Gilbert and Hortense who have dreams of becoming a lawyer and teacher are denied this because of horrific social injustice are integral in showing why this is something that may have improved slightly these days but still a long way from being perfect.
But while the play is razor sharp in the themes it covers, there are plenty of moments that make the audience laugh. In particular the barbed conversations between Gilbert and Hortense are a real delight.
What also makes this production so sharp and mesmerising to watch is the way in which it is so striking and simplistically presented. Katrina Lindsay’s designs combined with Jon Driscoll’s powerfully effective projections (particularly with characters going onboard Empire Windrush is beautifully captured) create a wonderful atmosphere that sweeps the audience from Jamaica to the UK seamlessly.
Everything has been created to full immerse the audience into each story and does so with great understated style. This is reflected even further through the performances of the strong cast. Leah Harvey is impressive as the brittle, headstrong but ultimately vulnerable Hortense. It is a wonderfully prim and focused performance that shows how through it all her dream of a better life is all that can sustain her, even leading to a terrible betrayal of her friend Celia that then allows her to find a way for her to come to the UK.
Elsewhere, Andrew Rothney also makes a strong impact as Bernard, Queenie’s husband, whose personality is filled with contrasts – from the clarity of the trauma of his wartime experiences but also his unashamed bigotry that makes it impossible to have any sympathy for him. It is stiff and well balanced performance that works well for the character. Aisling Loftus as Queenie is delightful as she allows her character’s compassion and bravery to shine through as she takes in those who were turned away elsewhere as well as her heartbreaking future. Gershwyn Eustache Jr has many different layers to offer as Gilbert – torn between wanting to make a better life for himself but having to put up with horrendous racial prejudice to do so. It is a performance that is filled with sympathy but also shows the character’s inner strength.
Overall, these may be fictional characters we see in Small Island but as we are learning more and more, there is a heartbreaking reality to the stories that are told on the stage. A powerful and poignant piece of theatre.
By Emma Clarendon
Small Island is available to watch until the 25th June.