Olivier, National Theatre – until 10 August 2019
Small Island is an epic story straddling Jamaica and England before, during and after World War II and exploring colonialism, racism, love and identity.
The novel tells the story from four different characters perspectives but Helen Edmundson’s stage adaptation pares it down making the two women Hortense (Leah Harvey) and Queenie (Aisling Loftus) the primary focus.
Hortense and Queenie have very different personalities – the former is well-mannered to the point of being uptight and has a tendency to look down at people while the latter is more convivial, open-minded but, initially at least, easily led. Both want to escape their lives and the identity that has been prescribed for them.
For Hortense, that means leaving her life as the guest/house help at her affluent relatives and becoming a teacher; for Queenie, it is escaping her parents’ pig farm in Norfolk. While Hortense is more calculated in achieving her ambitions, Queenie’s life is set on a new path almost by chance.
The early section of the play sets up the expectations of the women against the backdrop of a patriarchal society. It also sets up the expectations of a nation from its ‘mother’ country; Hortense sees England as a land of order and respect where there will be more opportunities for her.
The Earls Court community where Queenie has settled is like a version of her husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney), upright but self-serving and wary of difference or anything that threatens the status quo. War breaks down barriers, revealing prejudices when the worlds of Hortense and Queenie come crashing together.
Small Island is a gripping story, told really well without too much stage embellishment. The temptation with a story of this scale undoubtedly would be to go big but the set is minimal and deconstructed with a few well-chosen representative pieces. Film and projection are used sparingly at key moments to greater effect.
This approach allows the story room to build and the characters to flourish and develop without too many visual distractions.
Small Island is a play that has extra resonance given the Windrush scandal and feels like the sort of work that the National should be putting on.
Epic and subtle, universal and individual, tense and funny, poignant and moving – it’s a cracking piece of theatre.
It’s 3 hours and 10 minutes including an interval and I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
See it at the National Theatre until 10 August.
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For more female-centric period drama try Top Girls which is also at the National Theatre, my review is here.
Fringe review: Class and classroom tensions in Class, Bush Theatre
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