Small Island at the National Theatre: ‘a warm, moving epic’

Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Small Island in the Olivier Theatre at the National.

‘England is my golden life’. If only. Small Island, based on the 2004 novel by Andrea Levy here adapted by Helen Edmundson, is now on at the National Theatre and tells the personal histories of those effected by the Windrush Generation. Do not be put off by the three hours – this is a warm, moving epic that positions the National to be executing its titular function: that is, a theatre for the nation.

Where Levy’s novel is set in 1948 with sections going back in time to explore the central four characters, Edmundson instead uses the first half to set up the lives of Hortense, Gilbert and Queenie and in the second explores their ongoing lives in 1948 London. Hortense (Leah Harvey) has come to join her husband Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), a former RAF pilot in England. They live in a building owned by Queenie (Aisling Loftus), a Lincolnshire lass whose husband Bernard is missing after he too joined the war effort.

Gershwyn Eustache Jnr and Leah Harvey in Small Island.

When Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night opened at the National last year, the Windrush scandal was just beginning and the local telling of one Jamaican family’s life and continual celebration of cultural beliefs felt sadly timely. But Small Island makes clear to audiences the harsh reality of a post-war Britain that awaited those that made the journey and now, with the increasingly vocal far right, the play feels needed.

A stone wall sits at the back of the stage. Visually impenetrable? Perhaps. But the set is also malleable: Jon Driscoll’s projection proves this to be a blank slate onto which world history is told. Images of the Blitz, Jamaica, HMS Windrush or a montage of Hollywood glamour all occupy the wall at some point. Appropriate for its post-war setting, Katrina Lindsay’s sets are fragmented but easily identifiable: the small room shared by Hortense and Gilbert is made of loose pieces of furniture, a sink, hob, hanging window and doorframe. 

Aisling Loftus in Small Island.

Harvey’s steely Hortense perfectly captures the character’s pride and despondency as her dream of England shatters. Loftus brings a brilliantly northern strength and humour to the role, whilst Eustache’s Gilbert likewise smiles in the constant white face of adversity. The ensemble cast also prove the strength of Small Island is in its telling of lives both happy and sad: David Fielder’s broken Arthur, the charming CJ Beckford as Michael and Sandra James-Young as Miss Jewel are just some of the superb cast who make this play such a triumph.

Despite the dark world Small Island describes I was struck more by the warm comedy found throughout the piece. Rufus Norris’ direction has produced a tight production, with multiple instances of neat staging with technology capturing the scale of the work. Simply put, Small Island is required viewing for these dark times.


Small Island is at the National Theatre until the 9th August, 2019. On the 27th June it will be screened to cinemas across the country through National Theatre Live.

Photograph credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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