Small Island

Reviewer's Rating

In this adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel about the Windrush generation, the trials faced by native Jamaicans migrating to post-war Britain is explored through narratives of crushed hope. The characters of these narratives, who traverse the Atlantic Ocean full of dreams, encounter a war-weary and racist country when they step onto dry land. In this play we find hostility instead of hospitality: Small Island punctures the promised ideal of great British enterprise to reveal a cruel reality of xenophobia.

The play starts with a flashback to young Hortense (Keira Chansa), who is an intelligent young girl chaperoned by the buxom matron-type Miss Jewel (Sandra James-Young), being adopted into an ultra-Christian household. Hortense is an orphan, so this affluent albeit strict family seems like the silver lining of her sad start in life, but she soon learns how constrictive living with them is – her first introduction to Western society is through experiencing the family’s harsh and dogmatic theology, which is hardly a good omen for coming events.

Chansa plays Hortense as a tenacious yet unworldly girl who is infatuated by the similarly young and playful Michael (Shaquahn Crowe). They appear like figurines in a doll house: immaculately dressed, well-matched and happy – we anticipate that Hortense and Michael will have a perfect marriage, but we soon discover this is not to be. Michael leaves for boarding school, returning as a suavely suited and booted gentleman, although with predilections for pale-skinned beauties. The infatuated and doting Hortense is snubbed by Michael for a Marilyn-esque and self-obsessed American teacher (Amy Forrest); this demonstrates how the tendrils of Aryan aesthetics, so preoccupied with the blonde coiffures and crimson lips of Hollywood starlets, have spread and prevailed across the globe.

The atmosphere of Small Island grows increasingly oppressive as time moves on. The play serves as a reminder of how abhorrently Jamaican immigrants were treated upon arrival in England. Hortense eventually decides to emigrate by marrying the war veteran Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) – binding him to a promise that he’ll accommodate her when she raises funds to leave Jamaica. Gilbert, already exposed to vituperative British racism, realises his plan of training as a lawyer on foreign soil is scuppered before it starts – he has to work as a lowly postman instead, exposed to daily waves of abuse. Gershwyn plays this character as a hopeful young man, sometimes foolish and yet capable of great emotion when preaching against the idiocy of prejudice.

The only friend Gilbert can rely on is the bereaved widow Queenie (Aisling Loftus). Queenie is the glue of Small Island since she unites the lives of several black expatriates under her roof. She married a T S Eliot-looking type (Andrew Rothney), who seems innocent and somewhat clownish, yet later displays rather disgusting and controlling attributes. Arthur, his father, who was transformed into a vulnerable mute by the trauma of fighting in WW1, seems to be an icon of fading innocence – he’s played expertly by David Fielder as an endearing and fragile being.

Although prone to the occasional faux pas, symptomatic of ignorance and an aversion to Caribbean patois, Queenie’s good intentions are clear. Loftus plays her as a kind, comic, loving and fiercely protective woman – she effectively portrays this character as the linchpin of the play.

The National Theatre’s mechanical stage is utilised very effectively in Small Island. We first see the dreamy and starry background of Jamaica set against the hum of night-time insects, then the billowing fabric of the Windrush ship promising an exciting voyage, the bustling crowd of a grey London and even the comic death of Queenie’s aunt by choking on a coconut ice – she disappears down into a trapdoor as if taken quietly off to hell.

There’s a lot of national shame attached to this play. The hoped-for Camelot does not exist, and we realise that the life of a Jamaican immigrant is a series of grim disappointments. In this production we see the warmer palette of Jamaican life replaced by the greys of a tired and hostile England – a chromatic emphasis, among other theatrical and narrative ones, that the Jamaican people were tricked into abandoning the happier scene of their island.