FILM REVIEW: SMALL ISLAND.
A TALE OF hate, love and the indignity of war, Small Island is one of those massive narratives that should enjoy the kind of classic currency of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. With the fabulous Leah Harvey as Hortense, the intense eye to the storm of the stage production of this rollicking yarn of big choices and small bruises, the work is a total masterpiece: it is available on demand for free through the National Theatre at Home’s youtube channel until Wednesday 24 June. My View regrets the lateness of this review in the brief season of the work.
But this is not only Hortense’s story. Taking you from the windy colonised byways of Kingston, Jamaica to the narrow sidewalks and narrower people of London, around the Second World War, it’s a tale of great dreams and even bigger disappointments. It contains a rich kernel of survival in all of it, and while there are many bloodcurdling tears, the work never stoops to utter maudlin. Also featuring the extraordinary Aisling Loftus as Queenie Bly, the work is woven around audio-visual projection that takes the lid off what a theatre with a developed audio-visual capacity should feel like. There is a moment with a ship. And another with a storm in which you will feel your hair damp and your pulse racing, as you stand in the presence of the conjured thing.
The cast is threaded through its motions in a stage that has engineered moments of elevation and disappearance completely perfect in their coordination, feeding into the serpentine charisma of the story with an exactitude that plays with humour and specificity. And it is here where you will encounter cameos of the ilk of Aunt Dorothy (Beatie Edney), she of confectionery heritage and Arthur (David Fielder), the little old man with World War One shell shock but a heart of gold. It’s also here where you fleetingly meet Celia (Shiloh Coke), Hortense’s ebullient friend who stands vulnerable to Hortense’s hunger for life.
And then there is Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jr). An evolved mix of traditional male dignity and reliability in a dapper and life-worn frame, Eustache is perfectly cast as the oft hapless male lead with dreams of his own and hurts he must stomach in silence.
Ultimately, this is a work which like Ukutshona ko Mendi, directed by Mandla Mbothwe in 2017, portrays the brutal realities that meet loyal soldiers who fight in a western war, but who happen to be black-skinned. It’s about social justice and love and crude racism and the promises of warm, honey-coloured skin. Also featuring the child performers Keira Chansa and Shaquahn Crowe in extraordinarily emotionally complicated roles, the work is redolent with Jane Eyre, seen some weeks ago in this platform: its narrative lines are bold and clear and the cast is used and moved and taught to fight in a way which never betrays those lines of clarity. The legibility of this beautiful work is king. It’s another priceless gift from the National Theatre at Home.
- Small Island is adapted for stage by Helen Edmundson, based on the eponymous novel of Andrew Levy and directed by Rufus Norris for the Olivier theatre in London, in 2019. Directed for screen by Tony Grech-Smith, it is performed by a cast headed by CJ Beckford, Paul Bentall, Jacqueline Boatswain, Phoebe Frances Brown, Chereen Buckley, Keira Chansa, Cavan Clarke, Shiloh Coke, Shaquahn Crowe, Beatie Edney, Gershwyn Eustache Jr, Adam Ewan, David Fielder, Amy Forrest, Leah Harvey, John Hastings, Stephanie Jacob, Sandra James-Young, CJ Johnson, Natey Jones, Trevor Laird, Rebecca Lee, Aisling Loftus, Johann Myers, Daniel Norford and Andrew Rothney. Produced and presented by the National Theatre Live at Home, it features creative input by Katrina Lindsay (production design), Jon Driscoll (projection), Benjamin Kwasi Burrell (composer and musical direction), Ian Dickinson (sound), Coral Messam (movement), Kate Waters (fight choreography), Giuseppe Cannas (wigs, hair and makeup), Hazel Holder (dialect coach), Isabella Odoffin and Verity Naughton (casting) and Laura Cubitt (puppetry). It broadcasts for free until 25 June on the National Theatre’s youtube channel