Review: Small Island at the National Theatre

Andrea Levy’s tale of an explosive culture collision playing out in postwar London comes to the National Theatre

Helen Edmunson’s skilful interpretation of the novel, Small Island, by the late Andrea Levy, artfully unpicks themes of race, the Commonwealth, immigration and postwar British society by focusing on the stories of individuals, whose lives poetically intertwine. It does so with the aid of stunning set design, with Jon Driscoll’s projections screening everything from Caribbean sunsets to the bright lights of London, to the dreariness of the Blitz.

The tale plays out in post-World War Two Britain as the nation grapples with its identity and attempts to make sense of its relationship with its Commonwealth countries. As the audience, we make sense of this pivotal moment in history through key characters. The first we meet is the young and spirited Hortense, who we are introduced to in the grip of a Caribbean hurricane. In the opening scene, wind tears through the shutters of her classroom and clever freeze frames flashback to her childhood where a mini Hortense skips around on stage, gleefully playing among the palms with her young friend, Michael. In the Caribbean, we also meet RAF serviceman, Gilbert, whose enthusiasm for the Motherland spreads around the town and ignites Hortense’s dream of moving to England.

Hortense, Michael and Gilbert are all bound for the UK onboard Empire Windrush, the ship that Levy’s father sailed from the Caribbean to Tilbury in 1948, and at the close of Act One, a billowing sail sweeps over the stage, with a dramatic projection of the iconic vessel. Gilbert slowly alights and waves to the audience – a fitting moment for an interval.

small island review

Equally as pertinent as the Caribbean cast is Queenie, a feisty northern lass lured to the bright lights of London, and her stiff upper lip husband, Bernard, both living with his mute, shell-shock ridden father – who cleverly represents World War One’s silent omnipresence in 1940s and 1950s Britain. Queenie is ostracised from her neighbours for adopting a friendly manner with West Indian migrants while her husband is abroad at war. At various points, Queenie takes in Hortense and Gilbert under her roof, as well as the cool Michael, who she is drawn to as someone who represents all the passion and lust that her husband, Bernard, does not possess. Queenie and Michael’s lustful relationship starkly represents cross-continental cultures coming together, while Hortense and Gilbert’s initially reluctant relationship blossoms and strengthens with the bond over mutual experiences as West Indians in London.

The play is bursting with contrasts – the colour and energy of the Caribbean stage set compared with the dreary and bleak life of interwar and postwar London, expectations of what awaits Windrush passengers, compared to the startling reality of rations and racism, the lust that Michael represents to Queenie, compared to the lethargy of her husband, powerful men and oppressed women. The ultimate physical contrast: black and white, West Indian and English.

small island review

With the recent Windrush Scandal still ringing in our ears, and conversations surrounding immigration and what Britain means in the wake of Brexit very much in the public psyche, the timeliness of Small Island at the National Theatre feels topical and thoroughly relevant. This is a seminal play that narrates British heritage and culture, and we continue to feel the waves carved by Windrush as it hurtled across the North Atlantic Sea, to this day.

Small Island runs until 10 August tickets at National Theatre. Catch Small Island in the cinema from Thursday 27th June.