Review: Small Island At National Theatre
The Empire Windrush docked near London in 1948 and over 800 passengers from the Caribbean disembarked. It soon became clear that nothing would be the same again; not for the city, and not for its new residents.
In this revival of Rufus Norris’ Small Island, based on a book by Andrea Levy, the twin tales of Hortense (Leonie Elliott) and Queenie (Mirren Mack) are twisted together like a beautiful helix. Both want to escape: the former from a hurricane-hit Jamaica, the latter from becoming, like her parents, a Lincolnshire butcher. Their destinies take them to London and into less-than-ideal marriages before they are forced into a heartbreaking choice.
The book has been adapted before for a 2009 TV series starring Naomie Harris, Ruth Wilson and Benedict Cumberbatch and — good as that was— it doesn’t hold a candle to this production. The direction, writing and acting are of such a high quality here that the running time of three hours just flies; I could easily have spent another three hours in the company of these engaging characters.
Small Island refuses to be pigeonholed by its subject matter. It is, by turns, incredibly funny and deeply moving and provides an insightful look into the hostile environment faced by the Windrush generations, the deleterious effects of military service on its soldiers — both black and white — and the variety of views held in post-war London. The always unfair and sometimes intentional cruelty the newcomers faced at every turn will make you want to rip out your chair and throw it on stage.
The Empire Windrush caught fire and sank in 1954 but, for those it brought over and their families, their troubles are far from over. Small Island won’t reverse or erase the injustices they still face but it does give a highly entertaining and intelligent snapshot of a world not as different to the present as we would like.
Small Island at National Theatre, until 30 April 2022. Tickets from £20.
Last Updated 08 March 2022