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Small Island at the National Theatre

On YouTube until 25 June 2020

This National Theatre At Home’s freestream has to be one of the boldest and most ambitious yet. Andrea Levy’s sprawling novel Small Island has been turned into a glorious staged adaptation by writer Helen Edmundson. It is no less sprawling, and that word is not intended as a criticism. Seldom can the vast Olivier stage have been put to better use as we are transported between Jamaica and the UK as the so-called Windrush generation’s story comes in for scrutiny under Rufus Norris’s incisive direction.

Norris, of course, has exceptionally good form with large-scale-cast plays such as London Road and Market Boy (we’ll gloss over his Macbeth) and this continues the trend. 40+ actors fill the stage with life and movement bringing the late 1940s setting into sharp focus and reminding us of a time when the UK (or at least the government) actively pursued a policy of encouraging immigration from its former Empire; the repercussions of this are still being played out.

Not having read the novel, I wasn’t quite ready for the multi-focus approach that the storyline takes. The opening section is all about young Hortense and her childhood friendship with cousin Michael. Hortense is spirited (or wilful depending on your point of view) and looks set to be the central character. But she shares this focus with the stories of Gilbert who dreams of being a lawyer but encounters prejudice and abuse from his newly adopted country and Queenie from Lincolnshire who wants to escape life on her parent’s pig farm. She does so by marrying the unsuitable Bernard. As World War 2 rages, gradually the stories converge. Bernard goes “missing in action” and  Queenie, to make ends meet, rents out rooms in their Earls Court house. Hortense and Gilbert leave Jamaica, marry and move into the guest house; neither is happy with the situation and quickly realise that their hopes and dreams have been shattered.

Act One is epic in scope covering a ten-year time span and flitting between the heat and colour of Jamaica and the drab raininess of wartime Britain. Act 2 is much more tightly focused, principally concentrating on two rooms in the guest house with occasional forays into the outside world. Whether this was being used as an intentional metaphor to show the shrinking expectations of the various characters I’m not sure, but it certainly worked for me. The design team of Katrina Lindsay (set and costumes), Paul Anderson (lighting) and Ian Dickinson (sound) make a huge contribution to the overall effectiveness of the piece. In an ingenious and highly emotional moment we even get to see the Windrush itself with characters boarding and waving their farewells.

‘A modern-day classic about an age-old problem’: @JohnChapman398 tunes into @NationalTheatre’s epic adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel #SmallIsland, looking at generations of #racism in Britain. #NationalTheatreAtHome

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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