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Helen Edmundson’s Small Island at National Theatre – review round-up

The cast of Small Island at the Olivier. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Hold your breath: here comes the latest Olivier offering from Rufus Norris’ regime. The NT’s track record in its biggest space has been chronically patchy in recent years, so there’s always a lot riding on every big opening. And it’s no different for Small Island, Helen Edmundson’s stage adaptation of the late Andrea Levy’s acclaimed 2004 novel.

Epic in scope, Small Island is set in the immediate post-war period, its narrative stretching backwards and forwards in time and from Jamaica to Britain, to explore the arrival of the Windrush generation from both black and white perspectives. Norris’ timely production is equally epic: three and a half hours long, it uses a cast of 40 and runs until mid-August.

Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus star as Hortense, an upright Jamaican woman who arrives in England with the first wave of West Indian immigrants, and Queenie, an English housewife who moves from Lincolnshire to London, where Hortense’s life and hers collide.

But was this classic of modern literature as critically acclaimed on the stage as it was on paper? Does Edmundson capture the charisma of Levy’s novel? Does Norris shake off his Olivier achilles heel?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Small Island – An epic adaptation

The cast of Small Island at the Olivier Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The cast of Small Island at the Olivier Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Edmundson is an expert adapter of novels for the stage – she’s worked on Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Thérèse Raquin, The Mill on the Floss, and Swallows and Amazons before. But does she successfully shift Small Island from page to stage?

The vast majority of critics think that she does, and does so brilliantly. “Edmundson is a virtuoso adapter of novels and navigates her way through Levy’s rich plot making sure there is not a slack line anywhere,” writes Kate Kellaway (Observer [1]), while Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★ [2]) admires how Edmundson captures the balance between “the scale and scope of Levy’s concerns about the treatment of Britain’s black citizens from Jamaica and the West Indies” and “the sheer velocity of her storytelling.” 

Both Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★ [3]) and Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★ [4]) call it “a landmark” in the National Theatre’s history. Billington calls it “a tumultuous epic” and says that “if I was moved, it was by the occasion as much as the play, in that it showed theatre exercising a truly national function”, while Cavendish praises how it “invites everyone to contemplate, and celebrate, a crucial chapter of our history.”

“I don’t think it’s overstating things to declare that in this inspiring adaptation, which compresses the book into a gripping three-hour state-of-the-nation epic – how “we” were then, prefiguring who “we” have become now – Small Island has found its ideal home,” he continues.

According to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★ [5]), it’s “a finely observed tale of displacement and conflict, love and loyalty, here brought to the stage with its warmth and poignancy intact”, while according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★ [6]) it’s “both an intimate human story and a big, sprawling history” that’s “vital to be seen”, and according to Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, [7]) it’s “big, bold, poignant and powerful” with “a grand epic sweep but also a surprising intimacy.”

Not everyone agrees. For JN Benjamin (The Stage, ★★ [8]) it’s “tone-deaf” and “frequently centres whiteness in a story about blackness and perpetuates lazy stereotypes about black people and Jamaican culture”, while for Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★ [9]) it’s “so traditional, so unimaginative, so banal.”

“Levy’s story isn’t really shaped for the stage,” says Matt Trueman (Financial Times, ★★ [10]). “Dropping her chopped-up chronology, Edmundson’s script adopts a plodding linearity and a sketch-like simplicity.”

Most critics, though, concur with Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, [11]). “It is big, slick, pacy, and above all confident entertainment, designed to be gripping and accessible and entirely succeeding,” he writes.

Small Island – a panoramic production

Small Island at the Olivier. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Small Island at the Olivier. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Rufus Norris doesn’t often take the reins of a production in his own theatre. His last effort in the Olivier – last year’s Macbeth [12] – was an unmitigated disaster. Here, though, he seems to have re-found some form.

Billington praises the “hurtling energy” of his direction, Crompton calls it “breathtakingly assured”, Cavendish says its “careful yet playful” and Hitchings admires how it “strikes a balance between moments of fragile intimacy and scenes of sweeping breadth.”

“One of the virtues of Norris’ superb production is its ability to focus on people while giving the action a panoramic sweep,” continues Billington. “Jon Driscoll’s projections encompass everything from Caribbean hurricanes and burnished sunsets to the bustle of pre-war Piccadilly and the echoing emptiness of Lincolnshire landscapes. Katrina Lindsay’s sets also evoke multiple locales with minimal fuss.”

There’s plenty of praise for Driscoll and Lindsay. Kellaway writes that they use the Olivier’s space “ingeniously”, and she’s not the only one to extol the theatrical thrill of the moment Hortense embarks for England.

The design team offers “a magnificent black-and-white photograph of the mighty Empire Windrush that dominates the stage and into which several actors, in a thrilling trompe l’oeil, climb, as though disappearing into history”, she writes. It’s a moment that Benjamin calls “particularly powerful.”

The comments aren’t universally positive. Shenton isn’t alone in acknowledging that “it takes a while for the dramatic momentum to become established”, while Treneman observes that “the giant curved backdrop screen does irritate at times” and that “there are bumpy moments when you feel the history has been crammed in.”

Trueman’s concerns are more conceptual. “Norris’s staging is missing a central metaphor,” he comments. “Rather than turn Small Island into theatre, it merely sits Levy’s story on a stage.”

Again, though, most agree with Lukowski. “Master of spectacle Norris really is in his element here,” he writes. “Ultimately Small Island is a ferociously entertaining three hours of theatre, told with the sort of overwhelming resources only the National can marshal. It’s the sort of show the Olivier was built for.”

Small Island – Pitch-perfect performances

Small Island at the Olivier Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Small Island at the Olivier Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

There’s a cast of 40 at work here, but the narrative of Edmundson’s adaptation focuses on Hortense and Queenie, played by Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus respectively. Both put in performances to impress the critics.

Harvey “precisely captures Hortense’s stiff-backed pride in the face of prejudice,” according to Billington, is “wonderfully stand-offish” according to Cavendish, and “captures the beautifully complexity of Hortense” in “a superlative performance”, according to Benjamin.

“It’s irresistible to watch,” writes Kellaway. “She is at once absurd and touching as she holds her back ramrod straight and head high, whether remembering a childhood reprimand, enduring a broken heart, or realising that the slices of raw potato she has carefully served her husband are not what the English mean by chips.”

Loftus, meanwhile, “has never been better” for Cavendish, is “sprightly” and “bold” for Crompton, and “touchingly pins down Queenie’s working-class resilience,” for Billington.

There’s plenty of praise for their co-stars as well – Andrew Rothney as Queenie’s husband Bernard, CJ Beckford as charismatic Jamaican pilot Michael, and particularly Gershwyn Eustache Jr as Hortense’s husband Gilbert.

Eustache Jr’s Gilbert is “supremely loveable” according to Lukowski, “brilliantly played” according to Treneman, and “thrillingly convincing” according to Sierz.

“Eustache Jnr makes it impossible to resist Gilbert’s magnetism,” praises Crompton. “He lets us know what this man is thinking and feeling at every second, his disappointments and hopes flashing across his face like shadows. It is the contrast between what he makes you feel and how he is treated that makes Gilbert’s story so moving.”

Small Island – Is it any good?

It certainly is. With five-star reviews from Michael Billington in The Guardian and Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph, and glowing four-star write-ups from a host of other critics, it’s safe to say that Small Island has successfully made its way from page to stage. There are a few more moderate voices making complaints about the show’s length, depth and more importantly its treatment of black characters, but the reviews are overwhelmingly positive nonetheless.

Edmundson’s adaptation does justice to the sweeping sprawl of Levy’s novel, Rufus Norris’ production manages to be both intimate and epic, and there are top-notch performances from Leah Harvey, Aisling Loftus and Gershwyn Eustache Jr. Looks like Norris has a hit on his hands. And breathe.

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