Small Island at the National Theatre
The National Theatre’s issues with diversity and representation are well-documented at this point, especially after March’s face-palm of a mid-season update. What makes the theatre’s seemingly glacial progress more frustrating is that even those productions that, on the surface, appear to be a step away from the white male default are undermined by baffling decisions behind the scenes. Though there’s plenty to admire in this staging of Andrea Levy’s award-winning Small Island, there is a tonal and narrative imbalance that can perhaps be traced back to the fact the novel has been adapted by a white writer (Helen Edmundson) and director (Rufus Norris).
On paper, it’s such a smart piece of programming. Tracing the journeys of Hortense (Leah Harvey) and Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) from Jamaica to England via World War Two as part of the Windrush Generation, the story stacks up the distant promise of Britain, one based on colonial lies, against the reality of its bombed-out streets and racist populace.
However, it feels like more time – and the brunt of the flagship dramatic moments – are given over to Lincolnshire lass Queenie (Aisling Loftus), whose life weaves together with that of Hortense and Gilbert as friend and landlady. As much is made of her defying local racists – including her long-missing husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney) – as is the day-to-day hostility faced by her tenants.
Hortense is the character that most suffers from this tendency to linger on the goodness of a white woman. While Eustache Jnr’s charismatic, rightly angry, increasingly worn-down Gilbert is given plenty of time to shine, Harvey’s role merely bookends the first act, before becoming a source of easy comedy in the second. If only more time were given over to the sweetness of their gradually thawing relationship.
This is nothing against Harvey’s performance itself; she has a twinkle in her eye, and winning energy, that is stuffed into a tight jacket of repression after being hurt as a young woman. And it also isn’t to say Loftus doesn’t do fantastic work as Queenie; she’s warm and funny, and superbly carries off the play’s ending. It’s just that Hortense is ill-served by a script that’s keen to dial up the humour – relentless to the point where it swallows every scene – until it feels like an out-and-out comedy.
Compounding the feeling of an opportunity missed is the elegance of the staging. Set against a curved screen, projecting sky and street and ocean, Katrina Lindsay’s design sketches the idea of home using the skeletal framework of a house, a sparse scattering of stairs, battered furniture and floating windows. It allows Norris the freedom for intimate domestic scenes and sweeping shifts from country to country, creating a sense of scope that the perhaps poorly handled story deserves.
Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Small Island is at the National Theatre from 17th April until 10th August 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.