Recently Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, a brilliant articulation of the ongoing experience of racism in our nation. Anyone emerging from the recently opened production of Andrea Levy’s Small Island and feeling any degree of ‘well haven’t things come a long way’ would do well to read it, or the equally powerful ‘Natives’ by Akala, writes Katie Kelly.

I am glad, however, that Andrea Levy chose to talk so starkly and prophetically to white people about this very issue and let’s be honest, a National Theatre crowd is still predominantly a rather white place. 

Small Island was written in 2004 but this production was being worked on, with the contribution of its sadly deceased author, as the scandal of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy and its effect on the Windrush generation broke. The show opens at a time when Brexit politics has uncovered and perhaps encouraged, a nasty underbelly of far-right hate, and is a timely piece.

The novel, adapted brilliantly for the stage by Helen Edmundson, tells the story of the intertwined lives of Gilbert and Hortense, who come to London from Jamaica in the post war period, to seek opportunity in what they believed to be an environment full of promise and possibility; their impoverished white landlady Queenie whose ineffectual and racist husband has mysteriously failed to return from the war;  and the strangely ubiquitous Michael, cousin and first love of Hortense, and briefly lover of Queenie. 

Small Island is an epic story and profoundly moving. The first act, at times appeared to be taking a rather light hearted approach with more humour than I expected, or in truth, desired. There is a strange scene where to dramatise the bleakness of Queenie’s early life with her Lincolnshire butcher parents, a fake pig with its entrails is brought centre stage and her parents portrayed as caricatures, almost clowns. 

The second act, however, brought home the gut-wrenching disappointment of Hortense and Gilbert as they face the violent racism of 1950s London, and the gap between their hopes and skills and the reality of their circumstances and options. This is – and should be – deeply uncomfortable viewing and yet in this arid landscape, friendships are formed, and love is found in unlikely places. 

Queenie and Hortense both show extraordinary courage in desperate circumstances. They are wonderfully played by Aisling Loftus and Leah Harvey. Gershwyne Eustache Jnr as Gilbert, married by Hortense initially for convenience, maintains dignity and charm in the face of crushing hostility, both at work and at home.

Three hours might seem daunting, but the time flew by as we were transported between London and Jamaica with the help of simple and beautiful staging. Music and projection produced hurricanes and air raids; tropical sunsets and an imposing Windrush ship, which loomed large over stage and show. If tickets prove hard to obtain, Small Island will be shown in over 700 cinemas on 27 June. 

National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 until August 10th. Times: Mon – Sat 7.30pm; Thur & Sat Matinees 2pm. Admission: £15 – £75. Phone: 0207 452 3000.

www.nationaltheatre.org

Photos: credit Brinkhoff Moegenburg