“Small Island” a 2019 drama based on the epic and award-winning novel by Andrea Levy, adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Rufus Norris. It is now streaming on YouTube, thanks to the National Theatre in London.
The plot follows the lives of two women both living on small islands. The play opens shortly before the British joined World War II. Hortense Roberts (Leah Harvey) lives in Jamaica. She is a teaching assistant to a pretty, married and white teacher, Mrs. Ryder (Amy Forrest). Hortense has a mad crush on her cousin, Michael Roberts (C.J. Beckford) and was raised from a fairly young age by Michael’s family. She was separated from her mother because her skin was honey-colored. There is a hint that her father is white which makes her status higher than her darker peers. Therefore, she is raised in a fine house with her religious uncle. Michael goes away to boarding school, and comes back handsome and charming. He shortly joins the RAF and is off to England. Before he goes Hortense finds out his feelings for her are not mutual.
The scene then switches to the island of Great Britain. There, Queenie (Aisling Loftus), a woman about the same age as Hortense, manages to get off her parents’ farm where she unhappily labors and goes to work for her Aunt Dorothy (Beatie Edney), a shop owner. Queenie meets Bernard Bligh (Andrew Rothney), and he begins courting her. When Queenie’s life suddenly changes, she decides to marry Bernard although she is not romantically in love with him. Her life takes a turn again when the war comes, and Bernard enlists in the RAF. She is left to fend for herself and her father-in-law, Arthur (David Fielder) who is still shell-shocked from his time fighting in World War I.
During the war, Queenie meets two men that will alter her life. One is Michael Roberts who she lets stay at her home a couple of times. The other is Gilbert Joseph (Gershwyn Eustache, Jr.). Gilbert also joined the RAF with promises that when he came to England, he would have an important position in the RAF and be able to go to law school when the war was over. Instead, unlike Michael, he is given a lowly job and is faced with constant discrimination which he never faced in Jamaica.
After the war, Gilbert goes back to Jamaica and meets Hortense. The lives of the two women intersect when Hortense follows Gilbert to England in hopes of a better life.
The play gives us a fairly raw look at racial prejudice in England and pulls no punches. It also frankly deals with the horrors of war and last vestiges of colonialism, exemplified by the father, Arthur and his son, Bernard. Arthur’s inability to parent has stunted Bernard’s ability to relate to others. He is cold and distant and his own war story is chilling.
“Small Island” is one of those wonderful dramas that moves you, educates you and gives you a chance to self-reflect about our own beliefs.“
The acting is spectacular. The two women, Harvey and Aisling as Hortense and Queenie respectively, capture not just the outward personality characteristics but reveal the women’s souls. In one scene, Aisling is extraordinary when she has to perform a remarkable physical action along with another powerful bit of acting from Harvey.
Eustache’s Gilbert is both likeable and admirable. We see Gilbert’s pride, intelligence and his compassion.
Beckford is dashing and charismatic as Michael. Rothney goes from the cold and distant Bernard to the mentally scarred veteran returning not just the horrors of the Pacific during the war, but the horrors of the religious riots in Calcutta. In a standout performance, Fielder transforms himself into Arthur, a shell of a man now, who can no longer communicate with speech.
Norris’ direction is spellbinding, thanks to his vision and to the talent of this very fine professional cast, from the main characters to the supporting cast. He creates not only the terror of hurricanes on the small island of Jamaica, the horrors of the bombings of London, but some laughs to ease the tension. Despite the length of the play, probably done to satisfy the readers of the novel, we sit at the edge of our seats waiting to see what will happen next. We hardly have a chance to breathe.
Katrina Lindsay’s costumes and set blend perfectly to create both islands. She takes us from the Jamaican schoolhouse, to Michael’s family’s home, to the pig farm, the little shop in London, the Bligh home and several other locations. Jon Driscoll’s projection design and Paul Anderson’s lighting design help capture the hurricane in Jamaica and the bombing raids in London.
“Small Island” is one of those wonderful dramas that moves, educates, and gives you a chance to self-reflect about our own beliefs.
Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes with a minute and a half intermission.
Go to this link to see “Small Island” presented by the National Theatre on YouTube until June 25th at 2 pm.