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Small Island @ National Theatre (Play Review) Small Island @ National Theatre (Play Review)
Small Island @ National Theatre (Play Review)

Without doubt the outstanding feature of this lusciously lavish production of Small Island is Katrina Lindsay set design. From huge cinematic backdrops depicting anything from a thunderous tornado through immigrants arriving on the Empire Windrush to the intimacy of squalid 50s bedsit, the sets literally takes centre stage.


The story begins with flashbacks by Hortense (Leah Harvey), who is wrenched from her family to live with a rich and deeply religious uncle (Trevor Laird) on the basis that her light skin colour will afford her better opportunities in life.


The story fast forwards to the outbreak of World War II, and we see Hortense heartbroken on the quayside as her cousin Micheal CJ Beckford), with whom she is besotted leave to fight for the motherland.


Hortense then contrives a plan a give Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), Michael’s hapless friend his passage money to England on the basis that he sends for her when settled.


Through clever use of old war film footage, BBC narration and recreation of military recruitment drives in the colonies we are not only vividly reminded that this wartime but that discrimination was rife as as it was apparent that most of the black soldiers were used for nothing more than cannon fodder or menial tasks.


The war ends and we are now in England, where Queenie (Aisling Loftus) a white British landlady whilst not oblivious to skin colour (as she had a torrid affair with Michael when he was stationed in England) is prepared, despite the anger and horror of her neighbours to rent room to dirty, smelly  ‘coloureds’ like Gilbert.


The play reveals that war and discrimination can have massive ramifications on and off the battlegrounds that not only affect the individual physically and psychologically but can also affects society as whole.


This is highlighted as we see a demobbed Gilbert who after fighting for England is shunned, violently assaulted and victimised at every opportunity by a society that has conveniently ‘forgotten’ the valiant contributions of the brave young men from the colonies to the war effort.


Also Hortense’s rose tinted view of England is shattered as we witness through some very comic scenes that she’s clearly not prepared for squalid and dingy surroundings she encounters nor the vitriolic and hostile abuse she receives on the streets and in seeking employment in what she thought would be receptive and welcoming mother England.


Leah Harvey is simply magical as the prim and proper Hortense, who carries of the airs and graces of Victorian England with aplomb. Aisling Loftus’s as the sultry yet sensitive Queenie is a revelation. She manages to capture suspicious intolerance of her neighbours, the positivity of a few for a more diverse and integrated society with sensitivity and humour.


Despite not being a play not having any noteworthy thought-provoking dramatic scenes, director Rufus Norris bravely tackles the topic of prejudice and discrimination with courage and sensitivity taking great care not to overplay the race victim card. Kudos to him for that.


Music director, Benjamin Kwasi Burrell does an amazing job in creating the vibes of the Caribbean through slick song and dance routines with music provided by jazz Jamaica All-stars


Movement director Coral Messam does awesomely well  in moving the very large cast of around the massive stage whether to convey the hustle and bustle of downtown Kingston or the fast paced life of 40s London just emerging from the war.


Despite being overlong (a good few scenes could have been omitted), this is a fine retelling of the seminal novel by Andrea Levy and well worth the search for those hot tickets for what will surely be a sell-out show.


Until August 10, Small Island National Theatre, SE1 9PX Tickets and details visit: https://ebonyonline.net/event/small-island/

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