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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Small Island
Olivier Theatre Summer 2019

This is the sort of production a National Theatre was born to do – a sweeping epic with very human stories at its core. And director Rufus Norris, a large cast and an extensive design team employ all the National's technical and financial resources to do it full justice.

Helen Edmundson's dramatic adaptation of Andrea Levy's novel evokes the entire experience of West Indian immigrants in Britain in the 1940s, and the white English experience of them, through stories of a handful of characters.

In Jamaica, Hortense (Leah Harvey) grows up in love with her cousin Michael (CJ Beckford), but he leaves for Britian to join the RAF, as does Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr).

Meanwhile in England farm girl Queenie (Aisling Loftus) moves to London, where she enters an unsatisfying marriage with Bernard (Andrew Rothney).

Michael goes off on his own while Gilbert returns to Jamaica after the War, and Gilbert and Hortense agree on a marriage of convenience to enable them both to go to England. Bernard does not return and Queenie is forced to take in boarders.

Being unusually unprejudiced, she is one of the very few landladies willing to take black tenants, and Gilbert and Hortense stay with her in a setting much below what Hortense had expected in the wonderland of Britain.

Both Gilbert and Hortense are victims of discrimination and abuse, while Queenie is ostracised by her racist neighbours.

Michael reappears briefly, seriously complicating things, and Bernard comes home belatedly to be shocked by the changes from the world he left behind.

The play ends with very little really resolved but everyone realising that life in a newly multicultural Britain will be challenging.

Director Norris succeeds in making these few characters' experiences evoke an entire generation's, largely through effective use of a background cast of more than fifty and impressive staging effects, while never losing sight of the specific human experience of the central figures.

Each of the main characters, with the partial exception of the self-centred and aloof Michael, goes through traumatic changes that either lead to growth and maturing or betray an inability to grow and mature.

Leah Harvey takes Hortense from girlish happiness through the hardened bitterness of losing Michael and the calculated self-control of the deal with Gilbert, to the deep disappointment with life in Britain, and then on to a re-awakend capacity for warmth and concern for others.

Aisling Loftus's Queenie has a parallel journey, from youthful excitement through disappointment to a new strength and maturity, with the differences from Hortense's adventure underlining the gaps between white and black.

Gershwyn Eustache Jnr lets us watch and admire the seemingly shallow and happy-go-lucky Gilbert stand up under disappointment and revrsals and prove himself the finest man in the group.

And Andrew Rothney keeps Bernard from becoming merely the one-dimensional racist he could easily be by making us feel the real confusion of a man discovering he is no longer in control of his world.

Small Island is over three hours in length. But it is much shorter than many ninety-minute plays, so involved, enriched and carried along by it are we.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Small Island - National Theatre 2019
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