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  • Articles by Sonali

    Theatre review: Small Island

    It is proof of Small Island’s popularity that the Olivier Theatre was filled to capacity, holding 1150 people all waiting to be entertained over three and a half hours on the evening after a blisteringly hot day. The play is adapted from Andrea Levy’s novel of the same name.

    Why is Small Island so popular? It might be a favourite book for many people who come to see much loved characters being brought to life on stage. It could also be down to Andrea Levy’s old fashioned storytelling which sweeps the audience up and takes them on a journey to a faraway place.

    The play travels across time and the ocean. It starts before WW2 in Jamaica with Hortense (played by Leah Harvey) a school teacher in her schoolhouse taking shelter from an impending hurricane. There are flashbacks to Hortense’s idyllic childhood growing up with her cousin Michael sitting on the branches of a tamarind tree or looking for woodpecker’s nests. Later, a grown-up Michael (CJ Beckford) is sent off to join the airforce in WW2.

    After the war Hortense meets Gilbert Joseph (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), an ex-serviceman, who is back home in Jamaica from serving in the RAF in England. Gilbert is eager to return to England, which he refers to as the land of opportunity but he can’t afford price of the passage. Gilbert and Hortense embark on a marriage of convenience. Hortense pays for Gilberts passage on condition that she is able to join him in England once he finds somewhere for them to live.

    The plays switches seamlessly from scenes set in Jamaica to England by means of film projections on the back wall. We see a photograph of the HMS Windrush and a row of silhouetted shadows offset by a hat or two as people line up to board the ship destined for England.

    The gloominess and dourness of post-war London is indicated by a grey backdrop and the cast wearing coats, holding umbrellas and huddling their shoulders to imply the cold weather (the Olivier is a large scale theatre, with a large scale stage but there is a touch of an amateur dramatics production about this adaptation). Gilbert finds a room at the residence of Queenie Bligh (Aisling Loftus), whose husband Bernard is missing after the war.

    Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of the novel cuts out any padding in the story and the sequence of events in the play have been rejigged from their order in the book. For instance, Queenie meets Michael is in the first half of the play while this happens later on in the novel. The first half is choppy when we are introduced to the various characters and see how they relate to each other, while the second half (mostly set indoors at Queenie’s house) is more focused and engrossing.

    A key scene is when Hortense arrives at the flat in London in 1948 to meet Gilbert after her journey from Jamaica. Hortense is horrified by the shabby state of the room. The scene serves to show the disparity between her expectations of life in England and the grim reality, when we also see the interplay of her uptight disposition against Gilbert’s easy going optimism to comic effect.

    The various characters provide different perspectives on the Windrush story but Gilbert's experience is the most affecting. His decision to serve in the RAF was based on a sense of duty to the Mother Country and to the British Empire. But Gilbert faces hostility and prejudice especially from American GIs who still observe Jim Crow laws while in England. These scenes are uncomfortable to watch. Nonetheless Eustache’s rendition of the amiable Gilbert brightens up the production.

    Small Island isn’t great theatre, but it is enjoyable to watch and well acted with plenty of lighter moments while reminding us of the many hardships experienced by the Windrush generation. It's charming characters manage to gain our sympathy and the adaptation stays true to Andrea Levy’s epic novel.



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