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Review of Small Island by Esther Austin

Updated: Mar 12



'Small Island the revival of the critically acclaimed production. Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Andrea Levy’s prize-winning novel and directed by Rufus Norris, the production opened on 24 February in the Olivier theatre. Small Island brings to life the tangled history of Jamaica and the UK. Following the intricately connected stories of Hortense, newly arrived in London, landlady Queenie and servicemen Gilbert and Bernard, hope and humanity meet stubborn reality in their epic revival.'


This was my second time seeing Small Island at The National Theatre on Thursday 3rd March, and as before I was totally enthralled. Small Island still invoked so much inside of me. A nostalgic cacophony of visuals that were reminiscent of The Caribbean and her history; An oral historical sound track of captured experiences; moments where feelings and reactions were imposed upon by some pretty brutal truths about the experiences of a group of people who were thrown into a maelstrom of unexpected, painful and heart wrenching experiences, simply because of the colour of their skin. The play depicted how man's inhumanity to man can spread like a virus creating havoc and pain and yet in the midst of it all how man sometimes recognises the power within, simply because they held onto the essence of their culture and tradition and chose ' 'to become the change they wanted to see in the world.'


There was also the juxtaposition of culture and cultures intertwined within the connectivity of displacement and/or emigration, both sides of the coin seeking for a different or better life - however the singular thread of resonance for both was in the experiences had. For example when the British Army went to the island of Jamaica to sign up men for war. For some Jamaicans - they refused to be part of something that they clearly saw was still part of a cruel dictatorship of the 'slave trade'. The hierarchy was still the same as before but their message was delivered in a more palatable way yet with covert undertones.


Other Jamaicans, took pride in being given a 'great opportunity' to fight for the

Mother Land - a pride of being associated with the land of milk and honey and yet archaically and covertly, these men were nothing more than tools and pawns in the hands of the 'enemy' who were parading as sheep in wolves clothing. There is a saying keep your friends close and your enemies closer. But also it was their 'get out of jail' card, to be able to leave the island, to get work so they could build a future, and achieve their dreams.


The contrasts of Jamaicans in Jamaica and Jamaicans in the UK were portrayed on many levels. The island of Jamaica was an energy of light and ease, evoking a sense of freedom in the soul, despite the hardship and lack and why? because there was access to nature's most luxurious gifts - sun, sea and sand. Laughter, hard work, freedom to roam with ease or with the gait of music constantly permeating the soul of the land. Jamaica, where culture, music and tradition were steeped into the souls of a people who were disillusioned by the remnants of Slavery and war and yet hopeful and free to the possibilities of a better or different life. Ultimately this seemed to be the journey everyone was on, whether they remained on the island or were looking forward to exploring the notion that the streets of London were paved with gold, their goal was for a better life.


Small island also evoked the question around identity and what that meant, depending upon the setting you were in as well as allowing us to peer into the corridor of our own levels of expectation, and how expectations could either make or break us, in terms of our outlook on and of the world. Living conditions in the UK were subservient to that which many experienced in the Caribbean, even though many did not have much and yet coming to Britain many were forced to live in deprived accommodation - another attack on their self-worth. This was seen in the relationship between Hortense who was played by Leonie Elliott and her husband Gilbert played by Leemore Marrett Jr. A marriage that was not initially conceived in and by love but by circumstance, because as a single woman she needed to marry to come to England.


Hortense desperately wanted to leave Jamaica - her dream to be a School Teacher in England, but this was soon shot down. Hortense wanted to be a part of something bigger, the dream big, and even when that dreamed was spat upon, searing into the very heartbeat of all that she had ever fought to become, she finally discovered something deep and rich inside of herself - a fight to hold onto her identity no matter what. Along-with words of hope from her husband whose very masculinity and humanity as a black man was attacked daily - they both started to build together. It was then she opened up to him, physically and emotionally. They finally became strength in numbers and together able to walk the long, cold streets of London together with the sun shine essence of Jamaica in their hearts, to fulfil their dreams.


The play highlighted, sometimes to gasps of shock and disbelief , the treatment black people as a collective and then as individuals experienced because of racism and hatred and how as strong, ebullient human beings were often forced into subservient situations, mocked and ridiculed. Fighting daily to hold onto their dignity and integrity. Especially as a men, black men who carried the pride of the Caribbean in their heart, the play showed how a strong man's soul could be worn down, until he became little more than one of the small grey bricks , amongst so many other small grey bricks packed together to create a stone wall of small grey houses, that housed, small minded grey people, that represented the English, England. Those were the same small grey bricks, physically, that were often used to hurt, to threaten them with. Then we look at the women, black women who were skilled, hard working women, often seen as sensual trophies, who too were shunned and despised, who became the putty between the small grey bricks, holding and supporting their men, who tried to protect, to build and maintain their own sense of humanity and humility.


This is play is a must see. One that bought forth laughter , anger, shock, sadness, and moments of triumph. We were drawn into the lives of so many complexities of the human experience. Experiences where the British were often forced to face their own demons which they often deflected back onto 'the others'. For others, like Queenie, who was white, she continued to nurture her humanity and humility interspersed with moments of ignorance, that was beyond the small mindedness of the majority. Queenie, who embraced the 'darkies' not only because she needed the rent money by those who rented rooms in her home, but also she found a commonality between her loneliness and hard work and theirs. She saw them as human beings and spoke out in their defence many times. And then her brief romantic fling with one of her black tenants which produced a mixed race child, an experience that filled a gap at the time. A gap where she felt someone finally saw her for who she was and someone who embraced that moment, who embraced Queenie. Even though her husband who was at war, at the time but eventually came back, was a white British male, he was never able to fulfil Queenie the way this Black Solider did. Many contrasting experiences that defy the perception we have of others, until we are able to define our own humanity.




Small Island is a Must-See. It will certainly take you on a journey of nostalgia, and you will interact with its message in different ways. Depending on your own personal perception of life and experiences. Showing at: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/small-island The role of Hortense will be played by Leonie Elliott, Bernard will be performed by Martin Hutson, Queenie by Mirren Mack and Leemore Marrett Jr is Gilbert. The company also includes Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Chereen Buckley, Cavan Clarke, Adam Ewan, David Fielder, Amy Forrest, Andrew Frame, Stephanie Jacob, Sandra James-Young, CJ Johnson, Rebecca Lee, Rachel Lumberg, Alicia McKenzie, Daniel Norford, Tom Page, David Webber, Marcel White, and Flo Wilson.

The role of Little Michael will be performed by Asad-Shareef Muhammad, Theo-Oliver Townsend and Nasri Thompson and the role of Little Hortense by Ta’lia Harvey, Hosanna-Reine Grimwade and Renee Hart.

Set and costume design by Katrina Lindsay, projection design by Jon Driscoll and associate projection designer Gino Ricardo Green, lighting design by Paul Anderson, composer and rehearsal music direction by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph, sound associate Jonas Roebuck, movement direction by Coral Messam and fight direction by Kate Waters. Associate Director Denzel Wesley-Sanderson with casting by Isabella Odoffin CDG.

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