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FringeReview UK 2019

Small Island

National Theatre, London

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Storytelling, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Olivier


Low Down

Rufus Norris directs, Katrina Lindsay designs sets and costumes on the Olivier revolve against Jon Driscoll’s video projections: it lends a dense atmosphere carved through Paul Anderson’s lighting. Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s composition (supervisor Mark Tritschler) filters through Ian Dickinson’s sound. Coral Messam’s directs movement and Kate Waters fight scenes.


There’s a pang that Andrea Levy didn’t quite live to see Helen Edmundson’s turning her acclaimed Small Island into an epic sweep lasting three and a quarter hours in the National’s Olivier. Streamlining Levy’s narrative shuttle into one blast of storytelling, Edmundson’s straightened it out, and thus some of the surprises (one’s restored by a brief deletion here).


And in focusing on just three of four central characters of this novel of Jamaican Windrush and white British experience, we confine ourselves to two small islands: it’s room enough. Bernard’s far eastern experiences though essential to understanding his subsequent racism, are summarised in a few brief lines.


This is the kind of drama the Olivier’s made for, the kind of theatrical event that changes our view of ourselves. Rufus Norris’ tenure at the National will be judged by a few productions such as this, and it’s fitting he helms this one, and manages it so consummately.


He’s helped naturally by Edmundson’s clean-to-the-bone drive, her witty pointing up of the opening (the American schoolteacher who vanishes thinking she’s the heroine) but also her faithful delivery of Levy’s most lyrical moments: Queenie’s soliloquy of sexual awakening for instance is verbatim and just nudged by a few affirmative additions. Even that compression of Bernard’s experiences selects a few key phrases from ten chapters.


Katrina Lindsay’s design on the Olivier revolve helps too, like storyboarding on speed against Jon Driscoll’s video projections: whether of a Jamaican hurricane, Turneresque sunsets and Lincolnshire flatlands, or black-and-white 1940s projections of grimy post-Blitz London (always in black and white) it lends a dense atmosphere carved through Paul Anderson’s storm-lighting. Most emblematic of all, just before the interval a billowing cloth’s attached onto which the image of Empire Windrush’s stern looms then recedes as the cloth billows it into 3D. It’s unforgettable.


Lindsay’s swift scenes in Act One with Jamaican schoolrooms and home riffles through Lincolnshre and a strung-up pig, through a solidly-conceived confectioners’ counter and drab British home. People drop through floors or ascend through sudden lifts, punctuating drama with mild slapstick.


It’s Act Two’s gritty bedsit land – that same dreary house – where the narrative anchors at last, with its grimy gas ring and meter with very off-white unit, bedstead and chamber pot. Even so there’s much scenic movement, fluidly and unfussily done.


Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s composition (supervisor Mark Tritschler) filters memorably through Ian Dickinson’s sound which inevitably maps those hurricanes or monochrome footage. Coral Messam’s directs movement and Kate Waters fight scenes complement a flickr of seamless telling. Levy’s minute research into speech inflections has been carried over by Edmundson and the cast too.


The story of ‘honey’-skinned Hortense (Leah Harvey) embracing her discovery of Britain’s racial stereotypes is one of adjusting to both notions of black identity as well as white. Adopted by a religious family (Trevor Laird memorable as the stern paterfamilias) she forms an attachment to their son Michael Roberts (C J Beckford) a dashing young man who leaves to join the RAF after a scandal with that enthusiastic American Mrs Ryder (Amy Forrest). Harvey brings out the ardent warmth behind the proto-school ma’am pride, even prissiness. Beckford’s Michael promises to blossom into a man knowing his own charm.


Meanwhile in England Aisling Loftus’ Queenie gains freedom from her Lincolnshire farming family through Beatie Edney’s Aunt Dodrthy who lavishes her with dresses and London living. She’s awkwardly courted just in time by bank clerk Bernard Andrew Rothney – before Dorothy dies.


Rothney’s frigid awkwardness and his father Arthur – the consummate David Fielder, a physical embodiment of PTSD aphasia and withdrawal – would mire us in British sitcom if it weren’t for the war. As Bernard stung by Queenie enlists in the RAF, his home’s opened up to airmen and Michael makes a brief entrance.


Gershwyn Eustache Jr as Gilbert makes a parallel journey from Jamaica, also enlisting in the RAF but never allowed near a plane, and his hopes of becoming a lawyer too seem dashed. Eustache’s Gilbert combines both a more insecure joviality with an innate gravitas that makes him different to Michael’s winningly heroic entitlement.


Gilbert befriends Queenie too (she’s back in Lincolnshire) starts a fracas in a cinema with racist GIs and causes Arthur to be in harm’s way. Edmundson gives full rein to Levy’s vivid scenes of racism and casual exclusion.


The land of opportunity – the country that invited over so many Jamaicans who then had full British passports – seems to have changed its mind as Empire Windrush left Jamaica. Which is what happened: PM Attlee wanted the ship diverted. Plus ca change. With Edmundson’s brief strokes Levy explores how middle-class Jamaicans cope with demeaning flats and unskilled jobs, co-worker hostility and neighbours who want them evicted.


The plot hinges on two presumptions of death. Bernard though demobbed after a brief prison spell (honourably intended) vanishes. Michael’s posted missing. Gilbert back in Jamaica persuades Hortense this means dead (it usually does), and with one of those sudden reveals Hortense prevents Gilbert’s girlfriend and her own best friend Celia (Shiloh Coke) from joining him as emigrant in a ruthless exposure of her ailing mother, and substitutes her far from loving self as future wife, necessary for immigration. She asks for what Celia dishes out.


Everything’s directed to that shabby address in Earl’s Court, as Levy distils so many heritages through 21 Neverton Road. What Edmundson manages so well is maintain tension by condensing so much – and necessarily chopping out Bernard’s very different experiences.


This exemplary ensemble of 25 throw up innumerable vignettes, though it’s so swiftly managed that a focus on the central characters never falters, despite rich storytelling. Harvey and Aisling produces luminous, poignant performances of women in straitened choices. Eustache gradually rises in stature as Beckford’s mercurially attractive character fades, and Rothney humanizes the better impulses of Bernard against his shocking late outbursts.


What abides is a dazzling sense of a world greyed out in postwar ingratitude, as a nation re-establishes itself, sensing it’s not what it was. As an adaptation – as opposed to through-conceived theatre like Edmundson’s own Queen Anne – this is as good as it gets. Despite its near 200 minutes, Small Island never seems a moment too long. Which for a ground-breaking epic, one to cherish as a reboot for the future, seems like a passport for change.