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Small Island review at National Theatre, London – ‘wonderful performances, tone-deaf production’

The cast of Small Island at National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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In 2009, the Guardian named Small Island one of the defining books of the decade. It tells the story of the arrival of the Windrush generation to the UK through the eyes of a Jamaican couple, Hortense and Gilbert.

When Helen Edmundson was commissioned to adapt Andrea Levy’s novel for the Olivier stage back in 2014, it couldn’t have been predicted just how timely it would come to be.

Since then, the Windrush generation has been at the centre of one of the ugliest ongoing political scandals of recent times. Real-life Hortenses and Gilberts are being deported unlawfully. They’re being denied basic human rights. They’re being publicly humiliated. All this despite their immeasurable and continued contribution to UK society – during the war, after the war, and now. This was an opportunity to respond to that, to pay tribute to those people. Levy’s death earlier this year added to the weight of significance.

It is a shame then that – despite some excellent performances – Rufus Norris’ production is so often tone-deaf. It frequently centres whiteness in a story about blackness and perpetuates lazy stereotypes about black people and Jamaican culture. Edmundson’s adaptation handles the backstory of Queenie, the white British landlady, with nuance and care, while elements of Hortense’s narrative are reduced to caricature. The way Norris uses humour also feels, at best, ill-informed.

The performances go some way to redeeming things. It’s a superbly cast production. Shiloh Coke – fresh from her appearance in Misty – dazzles with a radiant portrayal of Hortense’s swaying and sashaying Jamaican best friend Celia (she’s also associate music director alongside Benjamin Kwasi Burrell).

Gershwyn Eustace Jr is also exceptional as Hortense’s long-suffering husband Gilbert. His energy is a binding force. But it is Leah Harvey – whose star continues to rise – who, with seemingly effortless readiness, captures the beautiful complexity of Hortense. It is a superlative performance.

The design is gorgeous too. Katrina Lindsay makes use of the expanse of the Olivier – it is often empty, waiting to be filled. Each item introduced to the stage feels loaded with meaning. There are many doors – sometimes they are open, but occasionally they are unexpectedly closed.

Jon Driscoll’s projection work is used to set the scene. The backdrop features palm trees and luscious green tropical leaves when the action is in Jamaica; in the UK it changes to threatening black clouds. The projection of the SS Empire Windrush is particularly powerful.

Too often though, elsewhere, the tone of the production fails to hit the right notes.

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Wonderfully performed if tonally misjudged adaptation of Andrea Levy’s acclaimed novel