Small Island – National Theatre review

Photo courtesy of Johan Persson and National Theatre

After its successful run at the National Theatre back in 2019, Small Island has returned!

Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Andrea Levy’s book of the same name, Small Island follows a variety of characters. The story starts off with Hortense – a young Jamaican woman who hopes to become a teacher in England, before introducing Gilbert – a Jamaican man who serves in the war with the prospect of hopefully studying in England to become a lawyer, and Queenie – a London landlady who swapped her farm life in Lincolnshire for the bright lights of London.

Two people on a stage

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Photo courtesy of Johan Persson and National Theatre

Small Island is an incredibly poignant story that is imbued with heart and emotion. It does not shy away from the tough reality of the lives and experiences of those who migrated from Jamaica to England. It portrays in full force the racism and xenophobia they experienced in scenes that we as a contemporary audience now find deeply disturbing, evident in the gasps and shaking heads of the audience. From the get-go it is evident that the story and those who bring it to life have carefully crafted a compelling narrative. With the play juggling many themes including racial prejudice, love, war and migration, it could be easy for the play to lose its identity. Yet Small Island manages to blend them all seamlessly into one effective narrative.

Photo courtesy of Johann Persson and National Theatre

Everything from the lighting to the sound was on point. From recreating the sounds and vibrancy of Jamaica pre-war to dreary London post blitz, the set design added another dimension to the production. The production puts the Olivier theatre’s stage to full use, making the most of the wide and vast space, adding a huge screen at the back which gives the production a cinematic quality. One scene featured a huge sheet with the Windrush projected onto it, using shadows to show the characters boarding, faceless individuals all leaving their homeland in search of a better life in the motherland, which was particularly powerful. These effects illustrate the thought that the creative team undertook to bring emotion to the story in an innovative and unique way. Full credit must go to Jon Driscoll for his projection work as well as Katrina Lindsay for her outstanding set design.

While the set was impressive, it can only go so far. That is where the tremendous cast come in. Leonie Elliott and Leemore Marrett Jr had particular standout performances as Hortense and Gilbert respectively, whilst Mirren Mack as Queenie also shines. However the whole cast performed flawlessly, bringing an electricity to the audience that was certainly reflected in the applause at the end. The casting was superb and the characters were compelling from start to finish.

A group of people on a stage

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Photo courtesy of Johan Persson and National Theatre

It’s one thing reading Small Island and hearing about the Windrush Generation. It’s another to see it come to life in front of your eyes. This adaptation is terrific and the play’s 3 hour and 5 minute running time breezes by. Small Island is simply a must see and is fully deserving of its place back at the National.
Small Island is adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Rufus Norris. Held at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre, Small Island is on till 30th April.

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