Review - Small Island

London theatre news: Sunday 21 June 2020

National Theatre - Online - Reviews

Josh Entecott reviews the latest offering from National Theatre at Home - 'important and vital theatre in which there is something to please everyone'.

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The ambitious and challenging undertaking of adapting Andrea Levy's critically acclaimed novel for the stage is an enticing one.

Rufus Norris directs a company of 40 actors and playwright Helen Edmundson has adapted the novel for the stage.

We follow the lives of Hortense, Michael, Gilbert and Queenie throughout a turbulent period of history; encompassing the Great War, the Second World War, the partition of India and the waning of the power of the British Empire.

Clearly, it is a massive undertaking and the attention to detail throughout the production ranging from the costume to dialects, is rigorous.

With repeated motifs of suitcases, to infer constant travel, reflective of the exodus of the Windrush generation, and shadows suggesting uncertainty, the interpretation of Andrea Levy's book results in an intriguing and epic production.

In the infant stages of the play the child actors Shaquahn Crowe and Keira Chansa display an absorbing playfulness which is void of self-consciousness, so often present in young actors, whilst catching woodpeckers, geckos and climbing trees.

Their juxtaposition with the already rather jaded characters of Michael and Hortense is displayed in a complex and nuanced manner.

Indeed, the cast are buoyed throughout the production by an engaging story and comic script 'How did the English conquer the world on nothing but mush?'

The comedy of the script is refreshing and consistent throughout and is nimbly delivered by the large ensemble cast; "Kip short for Kipling, mother was a fan, mind you she also liked trollop, so I got off lightly."

These comic undertones make the subject matter and subsequent aftermath of the Windrush scandal, even more thought provoking.

This is important and vital theatre and there is something in this production to please everyone.

From complicated character development and romance, to comic non-verbal acting and tragic, moving downfalls.

The considered lighting and projection design from Paul Anderson and Jon Driscoll produce a visually beautiful piece, helping the audience to navigate through the many settings, countries and periods.

The careful and slick choreography from Corral Messam aids the episodic nature of the piece, and enhances the enjoyable transitions, sometimes taking us from Jamaica to London in a simple phrase of movement.

Direct address is used as a narrative device throughout, however its effectiveness is reduced because of the frequency with which it is used.

It is a directorial steady marker, in a broad narrative.

The pace too, which is sometimes reflective, does sometimes lag and the amount of exposition can sometimes detract from the urgency of the tale.

Again, the overall chosen pace is a directorial choice and its slow, oftentimes melodic narrative style, is welcome.

Frantic scenes are sometimes embellished, and we are placed as witnesses which lack clarity for the viewer - this is particularly notable during the scene in the cinema.

The simplicity of the blocking style, due in part to the sheer number of scenes, cover a lot of ground and the play felt shorter than its three-hour running time.

As has happened often with the live streams, because of the camera choices, sometimes certain glances are lost which clearly delighted the live audience and business such as subtle eavesdropping become too subtle to pick up.

The story is occasionally predictable but the time frame of the whole piece, through which the story is told, is a broad one, resulting in a comfortable and wide-ranging theatrical experience with multiple settings.

The intensity and urgency of the production sometimes drops but the many entwined stories and different levels in which the story is told, make for a complex and multi-faceted production.

Sometimes we lose investment in a character after not seeing them for a while and it takes a while to pick up the thread.

The subtle use of the Olivier Theatre's revolve is also refreshing, as historically it can be eagerly over-used detracting from the story.

Here, however, it is not and when it is it used to show the contrast between the protagonists it is done so sparingly and delicately.

The projection design is reminiscent of Kneehigh's Brief Encounter when the cast 'enter' the moving images of the original film, projected onto a cyclorama.

In this production, images of Empire Windrush are shown as the characters climb aboard to embark on the famous voyage.

The intelligent directing from Rufus Norris invokes smart and subtle looks between characters - glances and physical actions populate the flexible and wide-ranging styles of acting.

One of the strongest scenes, both in terms of acting and design, is the scene in which Gilbert returns home with fish and chips, and encounters searching and troubling questions about racism that both he and Hortense have encountered.

This scene is successful for its intimacy, it is intense kitchen sink drama at its best.

Further conversations about racism dominate the play and it is profoundly moving when Gilbert is racially abused by Brits soon after fighting for Britain during the war; "I can't understand a word you say!"

This proximate scene contrasts with the larger scale set pieces.

Characters encounter racism which is overt and explicit.

At other times it is reflective of the sheer historical ignorance of humanity such as when Gilbert is being asked to sit in the black area of the cinema stating that, unlike in America, segregation and Jim Crow laws do not exist in Lincolnshire; "Jim Crow? Well he'll have to sit at the back too" is the response from the owner.

Overall, this engaging production is moving and educational.

It is also routine and non-experimental theatre, which covers a broad subject and a large period of history, with an ensemble who make good use of the dry and witty script.

During the current global political climate, it is perhaps more vital than ever that this story is told by the National Theatre.

Review written by: Josh Entecott

Streaming date: 18 June 2020

Cast and creatives

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Available online until 7pm on 25 June 2020


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