It's an epic tale, intertwining the stories of two couples, one white British, the other Jamaican, and their experiences in Britain after the second world war.
It’s a slow burn on stage in Helen Edmundson’s adaptation which is directed by Rufus Norris and designed by Katrina Lindsay, but very rewarding too offering both a sense of history and a focus on the appealingly human.
“How come the British know nothing about their own empire?” asks one of the characters in the play. A good question. With current focus on the UK government’s appalling treatment of the Windrush generation and their offspring, and the Black Lives Matter movement raising long overdue awareness of Britain’s colonial past and its impact on black people today, it's a starkly relevant piece of theatre.
Leah Harvey and Shiloh Coke. Photos by Brinkhoff Moegenburg.
The novel was partly autobiographical. In an essay on the British Library website Levy wrote: “My parents had come to this country from Jamaica. And in the area of London where we lived, that made my family very odd. We were immigrants. Outsiders. My dad had been a passenger on the Empire Windrush ship when it famously sailed into Tilbury in June 1948 and, according to many, changed the face of Britain for ever. My mum came to England on a Jamaica Banana Producer's boat. It sailed into West India dock on Guy Fawkes Night in the same year, under a shower of fireworks that my mum believed were to welcome her.” Like Gilbert in Small Island, Levy’s father was a postman, and, like Hortense, her mother was a trained teacher who struggled to find work.
Both novel and play are very, very good on the gap between expectation and reality, the lightness and sunshine of Jamaica in stark contrast with the drabness and pinched meanness and small mindedness of post-war Britain. In Six Stories and an Essay Levy wrote: “The racism I encountered was rarely violent or extreme, but it was insidious and ever-present and it had a profound effect on me.” It seems the UK has been a hostile environment for well over 70 years.
The show premiered in May 2019 just a year after the Windrush scandal broke. It fills that cavernous beast of a stage known as the Olivier with real confidence. It’s a long evening but bear with it because it deepens and you really grow to love the characters. As Kate Kellaway wrote in The Observer: “it has in abundance – that rarest of qualities in an epic – charm.” But it has grit too.
Leah Harvey and CJ Beckford.
It looks good. Let’s hear it from Time Out’s Andrzej Lukowski: “master of spectacle (Rufus) Norris really is in his element here. The aesthetic that he and his team have opted for is a sort of megabucks poor theatre: the hurricane is suggested by members of the gargantuan cast spinning school chairs around the stage; when Gilbert boards the Windrush, we see his silhouette stepping into archive footage of the vessel projected on a giant screen (there is great use of archives throughout Jon Driscoll’s projections). You can smell the money, but it retains a DIY wiriness – it’s never actively flashy.”
There was some criticism that it was a white creative team bringing this to the stage, even though Andrea Levy herself had prior to her death approved Helen Edmundson’s version on which work would have began some years before the premiere. If the production was being conceived now it couldn’t be with anything other than a black creative team. But this production can be seen as part of the slow but undoubtedly apparent progress by the NT in representation that runs from Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs (available as part of National Theatre at Home on July 2) through Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night to Inua Ellams version of Three Sisters, directed by Nadia Fall, which was at the NT just before shutdown. It’s baby steps, but it is forward movement.
You can watch Small Island on Thu 18 Jun at 7pm here, available until Thu 25 Jun .
And you can browse all the online theatre available to watch in our Streamdoor guide.