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Friday, May 20, 2022

Small Island review – enthralling Windrush drama makes stylish return | Theatre

There is arguably a calculated safety in staging a revival of this heart-wrenching Windrush generation story of war, love, migration and racial prejudice. Based on Andrea Levy’s bestselling novel, which spawned a two-part TV series more than a decade ago, it was adapted by Helen Edmundson for a 2019 stage production and streamed by the National Theatre the following year.

But it would be wholly churlish to sully this big, beautiful show with cynicism, given the wonders it accomplishes.

Rufus Norris’s immaculate direction, Jon Driscoll’s astounding screen projections and Katrina Lindsay’s breathtaking set are again central to its success, alongside a superb new cast.

Lindsay’s design is glorious in both grand spectacle and delightful detail. Gestural sets descend, ascend or are wheeled on – door frames, a sweet-shop counter, rows of chairs in a classroom. The show opens with a screen that becomes a bigger screen, and this Matryoshka-doll effect pronounces the self-conscious form of storytelling to come: several of the characters narrate the plot as it is being constructed on stage, sometimes with cheek and wit. The construction of the story works so fluidly with the assembly of the set that it is enthralling to behold. There are also vividly flashing interior monologues spoken front of stage, like a shared secret.

Small Island at the Olivier theatre.
Grand spectacle … Small Island has projections by Jon Driscoll and a set design by Katrina Lindsay. Photograph: Johan Persson

The story follows a migrating Caribbean couple, Hortense (Leonie Elliott) and Gilbert (Leemore Marrett Jr), who arrive in the “mother country” full of hope, Gilbert having fought in the Royal Air Force, only to be met by hate and hostility. The other leading part is their white British landlady, Queenie (Mirren Mack), while the fourth protagonist of the book is her racist husband, Bernard (Martin Hutson), who is relegated to an ancillary role here.

Levy’s novel, written as parallel narratives, places Hortense and Gilbert at its heart. But Edmundson’s adaptation sets Queenie at the centre. Hortense opens the production but her story is placed on pause for too long while Queenie takes centre stage, and when Hortense re-emerges we never feel quite as close to her again.

Characters are more comic too, the story fuzzy-edged with sentimentality. But this does not take away from the grim scenes of racism that Gilbert in particular faces in postwar Britain. Edmundson’s truncation of Bernard’s backstory works well in highlighting the clearly displaced fear and illogicality around race hate.

Every performance is vigorous, the three central characters wringing our hearts, though Marrett Jr’s Gilbert shines brightest with indefatigable good nature underscored with simmering anger and fierce intelligence.

If Small Island appears to have taken a place in the National Theatre’s pantheon already, it is with good reason. And if it is part of a drive to put bums on seats, no matter: it is without doubt the highest calibre of guaranteed hit shows.

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