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Review: Small Island, at National Theatre, Olivier

09 May, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah

Leah Harvey and CJ Beckford in Small Island. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

ANDREA Levy’s majestic story of the experiences of early Windrush migrants in post-war Britain has been superbly adapted in this its first stage outing, conveying both its breadth – five intersecting lives across two continents –and depth, an unforgettable collection of characters, warts and all.

We are first introduced to three of them in 1940s Jamaica: hoity-toity Hortense (Leah Harvey), her would-be paramour Michael (CJ Beckford), and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr’s genial Gilbert, whom she enters into a marriage of convenience with.

The deal, the £28.10s fare on the Empire Windrush in return for a respectable life in England, has them both heading for a fall once they arrive in the mythical “Mother Country”.

In a plot worthy of Dickens, their landlady turns out to be Queenie (Rebecca Leigh), a warm-hearted Lincolnshire lass whom Gilbert has already made acquaintance with while on RAF service during the war.

Enter Bernard (John Hastings), Queenie’s husband, expressing the kneejerk prejudices of the day.

In the background looms Michael, who left Jamaica to join the RAF and with whom Queenie has had a brief and fateful encounter.

A 40-strong ensemble all give standout performances, but the star turn of the night is Jon Driscoll’s projection design, which captures the sheer epic sweep of the melodrama with a series of images, from sun-kissed rural Jamaica to drab London terraces. One, of the Empire Windrush featuring the characters climbing on board in silhouette, sums up the poignancy of what was a journey to an illusion.

Until August 10

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