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Last Chance To See: Small Island @ Olivier Theatre

15th July 2019

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It’s hard to find a piece of theatre that feels more timely than Small Island, Andrea Levy’s epic story of Britain and Jamaica, which is currently being brought to life on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre. 

Image courtesy of The National Theatre

The “small island” in question is Britain, but is of course also Jamaica, where a large majority of our story takes place. Spanning the 1940s, as bombs fell on London and a generation of West Indians prepared to leave their lives behind and embark on a world-changing journey across the Atlantic, Helen Edmundson’s adaptation loses nothing of the emotional side whilst telling its big, sweeping story. Small Island is as much about the people as it is the place. And as the fallout from the Windrush scandal continues, there can’t be a better time to tell it. 

Andrea Levy died earlier this year, but it’s easy to believe that the National’s recreation of her 2004 novel - making good on its recent quest to tell stories that capture the breadth of the British experience - would have her approval. It’s a carefully told story of three people - Queenie, Hortense and Gilbert - whose lives converge in London after the Second World War, but it’s much more than the sum of its individual stories: its three leads represent empire, and multiculturalism, and miscommunication, and, ultimately, the making of modern Britain. It’s heart-breaking, and often hilarious, as is its Orange Prize-winning source material. 

The female leads - Aisling Loftus as Queenie, the farmer’s daughter who we find blood-splattered and determined to escape her seemingly pre-destined rural future in the opening scenes, and Leah Harvey as prim, often misunderstood Hortense - are standout, even if Hortense’s eventual husband Gilbert does get the most prominent laughs. 

Queenie’s repressed husband Bernard is used less - the novel offers more insight into his time away at war, potentially allowing him to develop as a more sympathetic character than we see in this adaptation. Focusing elsewhere, though, doesn’t diminish the story - and the key aspects of Bernard’s character (“just that little bit older, you see”) are captured successfully. 

The production is over three hours long, but the energy never dips - and it’s all down to the three central actors, who pull off the huge story with aplomb. 

Small Island runs for another month, and it’s an essential for those who are interested in race, identity and politics, both in today’s Britain and in our recent history. As a production that tells a story set approaching a century ago, it has a lot to tell us about our current political and societal context - and works to remind us how much further we still have to go. 

Small Island is playing at The National Theatre until 20th August. Get tickets here.

Lead image courtesy of The National Theatre

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