CJ Beckford

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