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Theatre Review: Small Island

Elizabeth Walsh on why the National Theatre’s streaming of Edmundson’s adaptation couldn’t have come at a better time.

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Image Credit: National Theatre, 2020

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island, which deals with the experiences of the Windrush generation, was first staged by the National Theatre in 2019. Although the 2020 tour was cancelled due to the current pandemic, all has not been lost. Small Island has been digitalised and can be watched online until 7pm on the 25 June as part of the National Theatre at Home Programme.

I have to admit that I haven’t read Levy’s novel, however, I believe there is something powerful about the stage which enables it to bring any work to life, and this is certainly the case with Small Island. The pressing issues cannot be ignored. They jump out at you from the screen and demand to be acknowledged, and that is exactly how it should be. We need to acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past which shamefully still permeate society today.

With this in mind, there is undoubtedly no better time than the present for the National Theatre to stream this thought-provoking production.

Small Island addresses the deeply ingrained societal issue of racism, which is as prominent now as it was then. As the play unfolds, the audience is introduced to the intricately connected stories of Hortense, Gilbert and Queenie. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the play as we are presented with three different viewpoints, highlighting the different ways in which individuals were impacted. Their stories overlap in relation to geographical locations and the desire for a better life. However, the experiences of Queenie being white British, compared to those of Gilbert and Hortense as black Jamaicans, are notably worlds apart.

The play begins in Jamaica with a projection of a historical recording from the 1940s, helping the audience to picture what life might have been like. The simplistic setting throughout much of the play packs a powerful punch. Within the first scene, the schoolhouse turned chicken shed provides light comic relief as a young Hortense hides from her cousin Michael behind a pile of stacked chairs. The lack of imposing set pieces ensures that the focus is on the characters, providing an open space in which they can effortlessly transition from one scene to the next, encountering one another along the way.

Each of the characters is linked to one another in some way, be it by coincidence or through familial ties. We are first introduced to Hortense, a determined school teacher who was brought up by her grandmother Miss Jewel. Her experiences of the past are relived in the present through the appearance of her childhood self. Her own experience of being given away by her mother is drawn upon towards the end of the play, when Queenie asks her and Gilbert if they will care for her son (who Hortense is unaware is fathered by her cousin Michael who met Queenie during the war). Similarities permeate the play as both Michael and Gilbert, an aspiring lawyer, sign up for the RAF. Gilbert is promised law training after he serves in the British Army, which he subsequently never receives.

Following seemingly endless false promises, Gilbert and Hortense find that England is not all it is made out to be. After fighting in the war, Gilbert returns to England on the HMT Empire Windrush. He finds the only accommodation available is in the form of a one bedroom in Queenie’s London townhouse. During his time in England he is subjected to racism everywhere he goes, from the cinema to his job, at the post office and even by ignorant women in the street who assume he has come from Africa. However, he does not remain silent. At every opportunity Gilbert fight’s back. This culminates in one of the final scenes when he challenges Bernard Bligh, Queenie’s husband. Bernard is inherently racist, particularly when he wrongly believes Gilbert is vying for his wife’s affection. Gilbert argues that despite their difference in appearance they are the same, an important message that is at the heart of the production: we must actively fight against injustice.

Queenie, a kind English woman represents the minority in her open and warm approach. She agrees to provide a place to stay for some of the West Indian soldiers she met during the war who move back to England in the hope of a better life. In doing so she is criticised by her pompous neighbour but refuses to listen. Despite her good intentions, Queenie is not without fault. She too uses prejudiced stereotypes towards Hortense and Gilbert. A notable example comes from a scene where Hortense asks her if she knows where the Department for Education is. Queenie wrongly assumes that she is enquiring after English lessons when in fact she wants to become a teacher.

Despite its title, Small Island has a huge impact. Almost three hours later I was just as gripped as I was at the beginning. Although the play could have been shortened, I feel that the longer running time gives a sense of being immersed in the lives of the characters and allows their individual stories to be fully developed. The messages portrayed surrounding England in the 1940s are just as important, if not more so in today’s climate. We need to actively fight against injustice and the engaging format of the play artfully brings such issues to the forefront of the spectator’s mind.

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