Small Island by Helen Edmundson based on the novel by Andrea Levy. National Theatre, London SE 19. 5*****. William Russell

by Helen Edmundson based on the novel by Andrea Levy.
The Olivier, the National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX to 10 August 2019.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm May Sat 2pm.
Runs 3hr One interval.
TICKETS: 0207 452 3000


Motherland, myth and the inheritance of empire

The myth of the Motherland, the benevolent Imperial rulers, is shattered in this splendid National Theatre production directed by Rufus Norris and based on the novel by Andrea Levy. Helen Edmundson has crafted a thoroughly admirable acting version, if not a great play, and it does takea a little time to get into its stride, the early scenes being a little to full of Caribbean jollity – life in Jamaica was not so wonderful that people did not wish to leave for a better life . Harvey as Hortense, the uptight schoolmarm who discovers life in one room in London is not what she expected to have to endure when she came to join her husband, who had joined the RAF and was now a civilian, and Aisling Loftus as Queenie, their apparently widowed landlady, a sympathetic soul, who takes in coloured lodgers and who, her husband dreadful being missing in action and assumed dead, has taken up with another Jamaican, Michael played by CJ Beckford. The link between the the two women is that Michael, although Hortense doesn’t know this, was her childhood sweetheart and the father of Queenie’s child.
The warmth of the early scenes is transformed into a life of slights and exploitation and the myth of the benevolent Motherland where all would be welcome is shattered as John Bull’s finest treated them appallingly at every level from the Government – Hortense’s teaching qualifications are not recognised, her husband is not given the RAF training he was promised, and he is abused by his white fellow workers when he returns to civvie street. It is all just too close to comfort to today with those children of Empire replaced by skilled workers from Europe doing the jobs Britons do not want to do – and being racially abused for doing them. As for the resilient Queenie, she survives a fairly awful rural childhood and copes with the world when her less than perfect husband vanishes admirably. He proves to be a bigot; she is someone who accepts people for who and what they are. Colour for her is not an issue. As her husband, Bernard, who returns to reassume his conjugal rights as is his right, or so he believes, Andrew Rothney manages both to make him appalling and yet pitiable.
The British Empire did some good things, but it also exploited the dominions and fostered the imperial dream deliberately of England as a homeland for all the citizens of the Empire, a case taking without giving. The play becomes a sobering experience for anyone brought up in the days when history taught in schools was remarkable for what was omitted. It is a most handsome staging, makes full use of the Olivier stage and what it can do, as well as doing full justice to its source, Levy’s novel and to the Windrush victims. Act One ends chillingly with that boat load of people full of hopes arriving, hopes we know are going to be cruelly dashed. It is at times a brutal, uncomfortable evening, but it also sends the audience out certainly sadder and, if not wiser, about to ask question that dreadful British received wisdom that they do everything perfectly, have the ideal democratic model which they have bestowed on the world. The whole production has an epic sweep, is full of riches and it is an evening to relish, the sort of thing the National Theatre should, but does not always, do.

Mrs Ryder: Amy Forrest.
Hortense: Leah Harvey.
Miss Jewel: Sandra James-Young.
Little Hortense: Keira Chansa, Aiko Fouellis-Mose, Nova Fourellis-Mose.
Mr Philip/GI/Kenneth: Trevor Laird.
Miss Ma: Jacqueline Boatswain.
Little Michael: Shaquhn Crowe’ Raphael Higgins-Humes, Quincy Miller-Cole.
Michael: C J Beckford.
Policeman/GI: Natey Jones.
Woman in hurricane: Chereen Buckley.
Bernard: Andrew Rothney.
Queenie: Aisling Loftus.
Aunt Dorothy/ Woman with baby/Mrs Buxton/Miss Todd: Beatie Edney.
Woman in Cinema: Stephanie Jacob.
Mr Buxton/Ginger/ Young man in sweet shop/Kip/GI/Railway worker: Cavan Clarke.
Arthur: David Fielder.
Franny: Phoebe Frances Brown, Rebecca Lee.
Gilbert: Gershwyn Eustache Jnr.
Recruiting Officer: Paul Bentall.
Elwood: Johann Myers.
Recruiting Officer: John Hastings.
Usherette: CJ Johnson.
GI Daniel Jorford.
Celia: Shiloh Coke.

Director: Rufus Norris.
Set & Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay.
Projection Designer: Jon Driscoll.
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson.
Composer: Benjamin Kwasi Burrell.
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson.
Movement Director: Coral Messam.
Fight Director: Kate Waters.
Company Voice Work: Jeannette Nelson.
Dialect Coach: Hazel Holder.
Production Photographs: Brinkhoff Moegenburg.

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