Review - Small Island at the National Theatre

Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Thursday, 02 May, 2019
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The latest chapter in the ongoing scandal around the treatment of the Windrush generation - immigrants who arrived in the "mother country" from the West Indies in the late 40s and early 50s - is still being written, with a group of over 80 MPs referring the Home Office to the Equality and Human Rights Commission only this week to investigate whether its "deeply discriminatory" hostile environment immigration policies represent institutional racism.

And now Rufus Norris's National Theatre truly embraces the national part of its name to bring a stage version of Andrea Levy's prize-winning 2004 novel Small Island to the Olivier, which translates the story of the arrival of some of them from Jamaica to a frequently less-than-warm welcome into relatable human terms but employs a vivid theatrical language to do so with.

The National has long specialised in literary adaptations from War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (the former returning to London this year, the latter just wrapping a return run at the West End's Piccadilly Theatre) to His Dark Materials and Coram Boy that put flesh and bones (and terrific stagecraft) onto those stories.

Now, this big-hearted version of Small Island makes for big, bold, poignant and powerful storytelling theatre. It has a grand epic sweep but also a surprising intimacy on the vast Olivier stage that made a vocal, refreshingly diverse audience really respond to it; it's a pity that you even have to notice it, but it is remarkable for once to see so many black theatregoers at the National Theatre.

That's cause for celebration enough (though some may wonder why it has taken a largely white creative team, including director Norris and adaptor Helen Edmundson, to bring it to the stage; we do now have enough black theatre practitioners, including at the National itself, who could have done it).

Still, kudos for opening the NT's stage and resources to it; and even if it takes a while for the dramatic momentum to become established as we move from hurricane-prone Jamaica to the calmer shores of England, the overlapping narratives of two couples - an English woman who becomes a landlady to new arrivals after her husband disappears while on military service, and two of her black tenants - eventually merge and become grippingly intertwined.

A vast ensemble cast of more than 40 actors populate it with stirring conviction; Gershwyn Eustache Jnr and Aisling Loftus as the sympathetic spouses to their more harshly characterised partners, played by Leah Harvey and Andrew Rothney respectively, are utterly credible. But they are surrounded by actors who make the show pulse with feeling.

Small Island is at the National Theatre until 10th August.

Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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