Small Island at the National Gallery; a review (Emily Bascombe, The Holy Cross School)

This stage adaptation of Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, Small Island, tells the twin tales of Hortense (Leonie Elliott) and Queenie (Mirren Mack). Each desire to flee: the former from a post hurricane Jamaica, and the latter from following in her parents’ footsteps by becoming a Lincolnshire butcher. Their fates lead them both to London and into substandard marriages.

The stage is set in mind with a wide perspective of British post-colonial society, in all its hideousness and bigotry. The excellent calibre of the directing, writing, and acting mean that the three-hour runtime flies by; the characters you spend these hours with are entirely realised, with their flaws, wit, and tenacity powering the plot. The central theme, which is still relevant today, is the backwards belief in Britain’s supposed right to rule, which meant that the Windrush generation, who were invited to come to this country from Jamaica and the West Indies, had their dreams of a better life cruelly destroyed by the racist hostility they faced.

Small Island defies categorization as a result of its material. It is both wonderfully amusing and immeasurably moving, and it provides an incisive glimpse at the hostility experienced by the Windrush generations, and the range of perspectives held in post-war London. The presentation of the inexplicably unjust and malicious treatment of these immigrants evoke a feeling of anger and disgust within the audience.

Yet, beneath the surface, there are subtler worries: the volatility of love, the way that people yearn for those who can’t provide them with happiness, and the notion that compassion and goodwill are the beacons of humanity.

The characters encapsulate all of this: tense Hortense, who adores her dashing cousin Michael but marries the vivacious Gilbert in order to move to England. They all seem to find themselves in the hands of Queenie, the landlady, who is warm and hospitable and willing to rent her rooms to people of colour when her neighbours won’t. 

As the backdrop shifts from the brilliant sun of Jamaica to the drab and dingy London streets, their narratives emerge – captivating the audience. The set design is breathtaking, using window and door frames to indicate entire lives, overseen by a panoramic view on which projections draw ever-changing scenes, quickly morphing from Hortense’s childhood night skies to Queenie’s cloudy Lincolnshire home, and then ultimately to the bombed wreckage of the capital.

Characters arriving or vanishing through a trapdoor emphasise the sensation of movement, of an universe being curated in front of our eyes. When the cast’s silhouettes are shown climbing into the Windrush in 1948, sections of scenery rotate and the cast seems to become a part of the set.

The criticism of this society is undeniably sophisticated and insightful, however, there are occasions in which humour is perfectly interlaced. Such as, Gilbert’s explination of British food as appearing to have been eaten before and Queenie’s encounters with Bernard in her aunt’s confectionery shop. But, when racism does inevitably emerge in the play, it is abrupt and jarring, with violent language that is unnerving and despicable.

Gilbert, who served in the Royal Air Force, glides through the story with elegance and grace, strong and uncompromising when exposed to abuse. Gilbert is played by Leemore Marrett Jr, who portrays him as a man of substance, evidenced by the manner in which his dreams of becoming a lawyer are crushed. 

Leonie Elliott’s portrayal of Hortense is similarly devastating. Even someone like Queenie, who seems to be looking out for her, can’t understand Hortense’s accent at times despite the pride she (Hortense) takes in her elocution. This only emphasises Hortense’s disappointment as she sees her dream of a chance at a ‘golden life’ fade away. 

Every member of the cast contributes to the reminder that the mind itself can become a small island, polarising humanity. It’s a remarkable feat, a humanistic and forthright affirmation that Britain’s story is also the story of its Black citizens as well as its White.

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