Andrew Rothney

Small Island

19/06/20

National Theatre Live

Anyone who’s still clinging to the notion that #BLM protests are not needed in the UK would do well to watch this latest screening from the National Theatre, and remind themselves of the shameful way black British subjects from Caribbean countries have been treated here.

Andrea Levy’s novel, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, is set in the 1940s, so does not directly address the 2018 Windrush scandal – where at least eighty-three people were wrongly deported – but it does show very clearly how they came to be here in the first place, encouraged to embrace their Britishness by fighting for ‘their’ country in the war, then helping to rebuild a battered Britain afterwards. ‘Used’ is the first word that comes to mind. ‘Abused’ is the second.

The play, directed by Rufus Norris, is at once an expansive, epic sweep of a project, and a deeply intimate portrayal of three people, cast adrift and then brought together, an intricate web linking their lives.

Leah Harvey is Hortense, a prim, ambitious Jamaican school teacher, desperate to escape the confines of her upbringing and live amongst the china tea cups and cream teas that define Britain for her. The love of her life is her ‘cousin’ Michael (CJ Beckford), but he doesn’t feel the same way about her. Spurned, Hortense realises that, by paying for his passage to England,  she can persuade RAF airman Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) to marry her, and offer her the life she dreams of.

But when she arrives in London, Hortense is horrified to discover that their accommodation is a tiny room in a rundown boarding house, that she is subjected daily to the most appalling racism, and that no one will employ her as a teacher, or even recognise the qualifications she’s worked so hard to acquire. The landlady, Queenie (Aisling Loftus), is their one ally, but even her support seems less assured when her bigoted husband, Bernard (Andrew Rothney), finally returns home from the war.

The acting from all is superb, although it is Harvey’s performance that lingers in the memory, a study in rigid reserve and masked disappointment.

I love Katrina Lindsay’s set design, which is perfectly complemented by Jon Driscoll’s projections, making full use of the enormous Olivier stage. The storm scenes in particular seem immersive, and the size of the Windrush boat (and thus the scale of the ensuing scandal) is cleverly conveyed.

The first act is more complex than the first, cutting between countries and characters, but we always know exactly where we are, and all the disparate strands are brought together skilfully in a more cohesive second act.

This is a timely release from the National Theatre, and reinforces the need for more BAME representation in the arts.

You have until next Thursday to watch it.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Grain in the Blood

03/11/16

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Grain in the Blood is the second play by Rob Drummond we’ve seen this week, but it’s so different from the rambunctious, slapstick humour of The Broons that it’s hard to believe it’s from the same pen. This is a clearly a playwright who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, who likes to experiment with a wide range of forms and genres. And this is all to the good, because Grain in the Blood feels like a real one-off, a spare, stark, unnerving chiller that is at once contemporary and classical. Its remote farmland setting is precise and detailed – and yet it could be anywhere. The dialogue is taut and ultra-modern in style, all fragments and silences and unfinished thoughts – but it could be any time. This is a complex, angular, unwieldy play – and it’s fascinating to see the plot unfurl.

Sophia (Blythe Duff) is a retired vet. Her son, Isaac (Andrew Rothney), has been in prison for years, ever since he murdered his wife, Summer. Sophia lives on the family farm, with her sickly granddaughter, Autumn (Sarah Miele), and Summer’s sister, Violet (Frances Thorburn). Autumn is dying; she needs a kidney transplant to survive. Under the careful watch of his minder, Bert (a wonderfully monosyllabic John Michie), Isaac is released from gaol for a long weekend, to meet his daughter and make a decision: will he donate a kidney to help her live?

There’s a sinister atmosphere on stage throughout, an uneasy sense of what might come to pass, accentuated by the presence of the shotgun we know is in the chest, by the slaughtered lambs and the kitchen knives. And the verses, recited by Autumn, conjure up an ancient world of witchcraft and folklore and bloody rituals.

The tension is palpable. There’s a school group sitting in front of us in the auditorium, and they’re so invested in the action that they gasp out loud as one, breathe out a collective “no” as the final plot point is revealed.

Orla O’Loughlin’s direction is subtle: these are actors who have been told to play the silence, explore the stillness, consider proxemics and use the edges of the stage – and this all helps authenticate that all-pervading sense of dread. Autumn’s bedroom, revealed by sliding walls at the back of the living room where everything else takes place, looks like the final picture on an advent calendar: the double doors opening to show an ethereal figure poised between life and death, bathed in yellow light and speaking truths. This potty-mouthed youngster is the moral heart of the play.

Grain in the Blood does what the best theatre should: it entertains, of course, but it also makes you think. It raises questions, demands answers. This is one I highly recommend.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield