Small Island, Leah Harvey, National Theatre
Jamaica, where Hortense (Leah Harvey) was brought up in Small Island. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a novel with Jamaican roots that has rippled out and into the wider cultural consciousness since its debut in 2004, winning amongst other awards the Whitbread Book Of The Year. An acclaimed BBC adaptation of the novel was screened in 2009 with Naomie Harris and Ruth Wilson playing the two female protagonists…

Andy Polaris reviews Small Island at the National Theatre

This April saw the National Theatre transform this important slice of shared history into a theatrical experience that is enticing an audience usually sidelined in London’s West End. Rarely can we see our lives onstage, unless perhaps in jukebox musicals and an occasional dramatic role in the subsidised theatres. Here in Small Island, it’s actually quite wonderful to see such a large black cast representing community, family and culture with passion and humour. British theatre is long overdue for actually reflecting the population.

The play tells the story of Hortense (Leah Harvey) an attractive light-skinned morally upright Jamaican woman who as a child is sent to live with a strict black family whose patriarch has very traditional ideas about family and a woman’s role. Her friendship with the son Michael Roberts quickly illustrates the social dynamics as he is sent off to boarding school while she cleans house. She does become a teacher but her romantic aspirations are overshadowed when dashing adult Michael (CJ Beckford) returns and turns his affections on another, bringing shame, scandal and expulsion from the family home.

We soon realise that island life is limiting and there are opportunities far from home and Michael joins the Royal Air Force fighting for the Motherland as Great Britain was viewed from the Commonwealth. Arriving in London, he briefly ends up along with some military friends staying in lodgings of Queenie whose husband is also off fighting and seemingly AWOL. Queenie (Aisling Loftus) is an outspoken white working-class woman who had migrated from her family’s harsh farm to the metropolitan life in an established confectionery. Her wit and frankness make her a strong stage presence like the best barmaid in any familiar soap, both welcoming and commanding respect.

A handsome older charmer on the island, Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), also has aspirations of a better life and becomes part of the historical exodus of the Windrush generation, the first wave of Caribbean citizens lured by the promise of jobs in post-war Britain, and arriving on our cold Tilbury shores in 1948 (continuing until the Seventies). In a move that was advantageous, Hortense marries for convenience and Gilbert is soon hitching a bride with the promise of sending for her when settled. He too becomes a lodger in Queenie’s  multicultural home, much to the chagrin of neighbours and more out of financial necessity than altruism. Queenie has shared the home with her father-in-law, the silent shell-shocked Arthur (David Fielder) who steals a few scenes with his skilful comic timing and ability to portray vulnerability and humour in his expressive body language.

Empire Windrush, Jamaicans
1948, smartly dressed Jamaicans arriving at Tilbury aboard the Empire Windrush. Photo © Illustrated London News / Mary Evans

The characters’ close proximity ignites the tension and frustrations of their thwarted ambitions with at first a wary distance by Hortense that eventually thaws when she learns to lower her expectations to the harsh realities of racism.  She begins to see an ally in Queenie despite her often culturally condescending nature in a steep learning curve for both.

The culture clash and realisation that the Jamaicans are treated as second-class citizens and greeted with outright hostility and suspicion by their hosts is a bitter pill to swallow especially for Gilbert and Michael who fought for king and country. This bitterness causes a strain in the marriage already frosty when Hortense sees her basic living conditions and her skills are not recognised. The return of Queenie’s husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney),  scarred from the horrors he has seen in India, pours fuel on the fire for the whole household. This  leads to a showdown and dramatic  poignant ending that reflects the attitude of generations to come on miscegenation.

The stage design and projections draw the audience into the spectacular lightning of an island hurricane to the silhouettes of passengers boarding the Windrush docked in port. We are shown the contrast of the dazzling busy street life of London’s West End and the British countryside as the shadow of a Lancaster bomber passes overhead.

This production is a must-see and its timing couldn’t be more significant with the government’s appalling treatment of  the Windrush generation which left many in nightmare scenarios of status denied, detained, deported,  and in some cases dying abroad unable to return to the UK.  A mixture of staggering bureaucratic incompetence and racism was uncovered by a group of Caribbean diplomats whose efforts were published in the Guardian. A cruel harvest faced hard-working citizens for more than forty years, being caught up in the hostile environment for immigrants who are still being dragged through a maze of legalese and compensation. The white audience is getting an education (at school I personally was taught about blacks only as slaves) and the black audience is acknowledging in many cases the history and troubled journeys experienced by themselves, parents and grandparents.

Tragically Andrea Levy died after a long illness with cancer earlier this year, unable to see this brilliant piece of theatre emerge. What she has done is leave a legacy and dramatic focal point for the hopes of generations and a changing postwar Britain grappling still uncomfortably with its colonial past and its attitudes to immigration.

Small Island, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, plays until 10 August at the National Theatre