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Theatre review: Small Island

Hopes dented: Leah Harvey as Hortense who dreams of a better life PICTURE: BRINKHOFF-MOEGENBURG


Small Island

Olivier, National Theatre, London ★★★★★

PRESENT day resonances fly thick and fast off Helen Edmundson’s big stage adaptation of Andrea Levy’s breakthrough novel. Written in 2004, it is set before, during and just after World War II, yet powerfully summons Britain in 2019, fracturing amid racial bigotry.

In Jamaica, young Hortense is dreaming of a better life. So is her cousin, Michael, and wannabe lawyer Gilbert, both of whom leave to fight on the side of British forces during the war. Meanwhile, Queenie, a pig farmer’s daughter from Lincolnshire, has grabbed the chance to swap swill for swish frocks when her aunt offers her a job in London.

Soon the lives and dented hopes of all four converge in an Earl’s Court lodging house as the Windrush generation, who left the Caribbean for a better life in the UK, find themselves brutally shunned when they get here.

Rufus Norris’s effortlessly enjoyable production is everything a show in the Olivier should be. It’s epic and intimate, leaping across continents yet rich with granular detail. All five leads, including Andrew Rothney as Queenie’s emotionally arrested husband Bernard, are excellent, from Leah Harvey’s haughty snob Hortense and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr’s spirited Gilbert to Aisling Loftus’s Queenie, a cheerfully open-minded landlady who nonetheless asks Hortense, achingly proper in her white gloves, whether there are any shops where she comes from.

Levy’s compassion as a writer, extended equally to all her characters, flows off the stage, with a scene-stealing performance particularly worthy of mention from David Fielder as Bernard’s war traumatised father.

Levy died earlier this year and this production is dedicated to her. It’s a fitting tribute, not just because it’s both accessible and excellent, but because it speaks to all of us, today.