This theatrical adaptation of Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel Small Island tells the twin stories of Hortense (Leonie Elliott) and Queenie (Mirren Mack). Each wants to flee: the first from a post-hurricane Jamaica, and the second to follow in her parents’ footsteps by becoming a butcher in Lincolnshire. Their destinies lead them both to London and to unsanitary marriages.
The scene is staged with a broad perspective of British post-colonial society, in all its hideousness and bigotry. The excellent caliber of directing, writing and acting means the three-hour runtime flies by; the characters you spend those hours with are fully realized, with their flaws, wits, and tenacity fueling the plot. The central theme, which is still relevant today, is the retrograde belief in Britain’s supposed right to rule, which means that the Windrush generation, who were invited to come to this country from Jamaica and the West Indies, dreamed of a better life. cruelly destroyed by the racist hostility they faced.
Small Island defies categorization because of its material. It’s both wonderfully fun and immeasurably moving, and it provides an incisive insight into the hostility experienced by the Windrush generations and the range of perspectives held in post-war London. The presentation of the inexplicably unjust and malicious treatment of these immigrants evokes feelings of anger and disgust in the public.
Yet beneath the surface there are more subtle worries: the volatility of love, the way people yearn for those who cannot bring them happiness, and the notion that compassion and goodwill are the beacons of humanity.
The characters sum it all up: tense Hortense, who adores her dashing cousin Michael but marries the lively Gilbert in order to settle in England. They all seem to end up in the hands of Queenie, the landlady, who is warm and hospitable and willing to rent out her rooms to people of color when her neighbors won’t.
As the backdrop shifts from the bright sunshine of Jamaica to the dull, dull streets of London, their stories emerge – captivating audiences. The scenography is breathtaking, using window and door frames to indicate entire lives, overseen by a panoramic view on which projections draw ever-changing scenes, rapidly changing from the night sky of childhood to Hortense to the Lincolnshire cloud home of Queenie, then finally to the bombed-out wreckage of the capital.
Characters arriving or disappearing through a trap door accentuate the feeling of movement, of a universe that is organized before our eyes. When the silhouettes of the actors are shown climbing the Windrush in 1948, sections of the set rotate and the actors appear to be part of the set.
This company’s critique is undeniably sophisticated and insightful, however, there are occasions where the humor is perfectly intertwined. Like Gilbert’s explanation of British food as seeming to have been eaten before and Queenie’s encounters with Bernard at her aunt’s confectionery. But, when racism inevitably emerges in the play, it is abrupt and shocking, with violent language that is unnerving and despicable.
Gilbert, who served in the Royal Air Force, glides through history with elegance and grace, strong and uncompromising when exposed to abuse. Gilbert is played by Leemore Marrett Jr, who portrays him as a man of substance, as evidenced by how his dreams of becoming a lawyer are dashed.
Leonie Elliott’s portrayal of Hortense is equally devastating. Even someone like Queenie, who seems to watch over her, sometimes cannot understand Hortense’s accent despite the pride she (Hortense) takes in her speech. This only accentuates the disappointment of Hortense who sees her dream of a chance at a “golden life” vanish.
Each cast member contributes a reminder that the mind itself can become a small island, polarizing humanity. It is a remarkable feat, a humanistic and candid assertion that the history of Britain is also the history of its black citizens as well as its whites.