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ONLINE THEATRE Racism writ large in Small Island

MARY CONWAY recommends a resonant drama on the fraught experiences of post-war black migrants in Britain

Small Island
National Theatre at Home

HELEN EDMUNDSON’S stage adaptation of Andrea Levy’s hugely successful and epoch-defining novel Small Island was rapturously received at the National Theatre in 2019.

Now being streamed during lockdown, this brave and deeply truthful story demonstrates how and exactly why black lives matter.

Set in the 1940s, the play charts the arrival in England of refined and educated young black Jamaican woman Hortense. She and her husband Gilbert lodge in the London home of the white Queenie in a post-war London rotten with racism.

Adapting a novel of epic proportions is no easy feat, especially when the focus switches from Jamaica to England, from Lincolnshire to London and from WWII to post-war squalor and Edmundson makes it even harder for herself by preserving the leisurely pace of the original.

But this is a small gripe in a production by Rufus Norris that comes into its own with an unstoppable emotional force.

The play’s power lies in the characters and the urgency of their story. And the acting is excellent, from Leah Harvey (Hortense) in her dainty dress, church-going hat and gloves to the unique and winning performance of Aisling Loftus as Queenie.

Gershwyn Eustache Jnr brings us a deeply likeable and charming Gilbert, while CJ Beckford shines as the handsome Michael and David Fielder is heartwarming as Queenie’s shell-shocked father-in-law Arthur.

The veracity of the story is paramount. Michael and Gilbert both fight for Britain in the war and Gilbert, when he comes to settle for good, travels on the Windrush.

Trained teacher Hortense is the model of what she sees as a modern British woman — educated, refined and proper in every respect, while Gilbert intends to become a lawyer and Michael seduces white women with the kind of wild good looks they’ve only seen in the pictures.

They are everything Britain would claim to be and their dreams, cultivated by British propaganda, are boundless. Their treatment in this country then and since is shameful and a stain on the collective conscience.

Yet the play is buoyed up by hope. These people are too intelligent, too resourceful, too full of humour and too big-hearted to be crushed.

And they take up the struggle in a production that is both a timely reminder and a sobering lesson.

Available free on YouTube until June 25, youtube.com/watch?v=pac-Furijsw

 

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