Small Island, National Theatre Live (YouTube) until June 25
Based on the late Andrea Levy’s novel and adapted by Helen Edmundson, this screening of a “live” performance could not be more timely. Although set primarily in the forties, the themes resonate vividly with the current Black Lives Matter campaign, and the continuing Windrush debate.
The production is directed by Rufus Norris who manages to criss-cross the Atlantic and several decades with ease and clarity, leaving the audience in no doubt where they are, geographically or temporally.
A seamless use of back projections, designed by Jon Driscoll combine with a rotating stage and flying set that make the visual experience as stunning as the emotional one.
The plot revolves around Hortense, enigmatically played by Leah Harvey, a light-skinned Jamaican, her husband, Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jr) who, after a stint in the RAF returns to Britain as part of the Windrush generation.
Also featured is Queenie, a really good performance from Aisling Loftus, the white daughter of a pig farmer.
Their lives intertwine through Michael, Hortense’s cousin played by CJ Beckford, who we first meet when they are children and is another Jamaican who served in the RAF. Besides race there are multiple themes in the play: class, family, Empire, segregation in America, and marital sex in less enlightened times, to mention a few.
However, centrally, it is prejudice that drives the action. Initially it is the attitude to black servicemen from across the Empire who joined up to fight for the motherland, and then to the immigrants who arrived post-war to embrace the new world they had fought for, and which was found lacking.
This is explored through a series of set pieces, with some narration to the audience from key players. There is measured use of racial epithets which make them all the more shocking when they appear. The Earls Court interior captures exactly the period with Ealing Studios’ film set grubbiness and a Rillington Place vibe. The period clothes, large mackintoshes and overcoats, the battered cases and trilby hats are straight from Pathe news coverage of the arriving Windrush.
Despite the momentous themes the production is very funny with some smart one liners and hilarious physical theatre, especially from Queenie’s mute father-in-law, Arthur (David Fielder) when he mimes confusion and bewilderment. His son, Bernard, given a barely contained frustrated rage by Andrew Rothney, epitomises the buttoned-up superiority of the Little England mentality, but in comedic terms channels John Cleese to his father’s Ronnie Corbett.
On the Lincolnshire farm, where Queenie grows up, her parents gut an enormous pig carcass and parade voluminous entrails across the stage like trophies. In contrast, later in the play, Queenie gives birth in a scene that manages to be tender and realistic yet also humourous. There are also some great song and dance routines, embraced by the large cast with great enthusiasm, most obviously as the war ends singing the Mento classic, “Come mek me hold your hand”.
The play closes with some redemption for the principles and a small hope of a better future which, as we know, is still distant. Like the Barbershop Chronicles before it, this production is a must-see for these times, sadly only available for three more days.
The access to the National Theatre archive has been a wonderful bonus of lockdown, and one which any theatregoer must take advantage of while it's still there.
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