Monday, June 3, 2019

Small Island: The National Theatre Works the Room

Gershwyn Eustache Jr. and Leah Harvey in Small Island at London's National Theatre. (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

This review contains spoilers.
Small Island, on the Olivier stage at London’s National Theatre, clocks in at three hours and fifteen minutes and feels more like a miniseries than a play. (Indeed it has been a BBC miniseries, starring Naomie Harris, Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo and Benedict Cumberbatch.) Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Andrea Levy’s multiple-award-winning 2004 novel about Jamaicans struggling to make lives for themselves in World War II and post-war London, it takes the entire first act – an hour and forty-five minutes – to set up the parallel between its two protagonists, one black and one white. The black heroine is Hortense (Leah Harvey), an obstinate, intractable Jamaican schoolteacher whose mother gave her up to be raised by foster parents in Kingston, where she believed the child would have a more rewarding life. Hortense is so desperate to get out of Jamaica – to London, where she assumes she can land a teaching job – that she steals Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jr.), who fought with the British Armed Forces during the war, from her best friend. She offers to pay for his passage to London on the Empire Windrush (which carried Levy’s own parents from Jamaica in 1948) on condition that he marry her and send for her once he’s established himself. The white heroine is Queenie (Aisling Loftus), who comes to London from the country in the late thirties to live with her aunt and work in her news-agent’s shop, marries the sexually repressed Bernard Bligh (Andrew Rothney) and moves in with him and his father Arthur (David Fielder), who emerged from the First World War so shell-shocked that he stopped speaking. When war breaks out and Bernard joins up, Queenie moves back to her parents’ farm in Lincolnshire and waits for her husband to return, but the army sends him straight to India in 1945 on a peacekeeping mission, where he disappears mysteriously. To keep solvent she opens her home to military boarders, including, at different times, Gilbert and Hortense’s cousin Michael (CJ Beckford), the earliest object of her romantic attention, with whom Queenie has a love affair that awakens her both sexually and emotionally. When Gilbert returns to England on Hortense’s dime in 1948, he moves into the working-class London area where Queenie has opened a boardinghouse, and that’s the cramped, seedy and largely xenophobic neighborhood to which he welcomes Hortense.