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Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, Small Island, has come to life in a new play at the National Theatre by playwright, Helen Edmundson. After three hours of flawless acting, engaging drama and innovative set transitions, the audience showered the cast with praise on opening night with a standing ovation. Edmundson’s vision of Levy’s important novel was a crowd-pleasing success. From the start, the audience was thoroughly immersed in the storyline, audibly reacting with laughter and verbal comments after humorous and particularly difficult, racist events. It was one of the most spontaneously interactive plays I have seen in London, which gave it a feeling of immediacy and relevance.
Leah Harvey’s portrayal of Hortense, an educated, light skinned Jamaican teacher who dreams of a life in London, rang true. The overly proper and prickly character from Levy’s novel was just as difficult to sympathise with on stage as she was on the page. Gershwyn Eustache Jnr charmed the audience with his portrayal of Gilbert, Hortense’s unwitting RAF husband, who at once attracted her with his stark resemblance to her long-lost cousin and unrequited love, Michael Roberts, as much as he repelled her with his seemingly uneducated demeanour. Aisling Loftus as Queenie was a gem, full of character and witty snide remarks directed to the audience, but the star of the show was Sandra James-Young as Miss Jewel, Hortense’s grandmother and the heart of old Jamaica, as she transformed Wordsworth’s poem, The Daffodils, into her own rendition. The songs and dance sequences enriched the play just as much as the historical footage of the war and the Empire Windrush skilfully projected upon the stage in creative ways. The only thing missing from this adaptation was the theatre of war, which left the play with a feeling of condemned domesticity instead of worldwide doom from the deadly battles and many lives lost in WWII.
Edmundson’s Small Island is an elegant play touching upon the historical, and the recent resurgence of, gross racism non-white British subjects dealt with in their everyday lives, which draws the audience in with humour and dark drama. It is an important reminder of the troubled race relations in Britain not so long ago, especially after the recent wave of deportations of British subjects from the Windrush generation. It is sure to enchant audiences far and wide. (5 Stars)
Small Island will be broadcast from the National Theatre to over 700 UK cinemas and worldwide on 27 June 2019. For more information, visit www.ntlive.com