Andrea Levy’s multi-award-winning novel became a bestseller when it was first published in 2004, and unsurprisingly it was turned into a well-received two-part BBC TV adaptation in 2009. Today it would surely have been bought by Netflix as an epic, panoramic narrative perfect for a big-budget eight-part series.
Beginning in colonial Jamaica in the 30s and ending in 1948 in post-war Britain, it focuses on five main characters, starting with Hortense, an unworldly strait-laced school teacher, and Michael, her charismatic cousin and the son of her harsh, God-fearing adoptive parents. Though sweethearts from childhood, the romance goes nowhere when, as a young adult, Michael has an affair with a white American woman prior to leaving Jamaica for Britain and joining the RAF as soon as war is declared.
Unhappy with her stultifying Caribbean existence, Hortense’s only hope of finding a more fulfilled life abroad is a marriage of convenience to an intelligent, good-natured, likeable islander named Gilbert, whose ambition is to become a lawyer in Britain but who finds himself enlisting instead.
After the war he sends for Hortense, but doesn’t even meet her at the station.
Their hopes for a better life in Blighty are shattered when they encounter racism, intolerance, sub-standard living conditions and shame-making prejudice – with one exception – an attractive Lincolnshire lass called Queenie whose parents run a pig farm from which she escapes to seek a better life in London. But she makes the mistake of marrying a nerdy, inarticulate racist called Bernard who, after enlisting, is reported missing, presumed dead. He returns home four years after war has ended to find Queenie pregnant by none other than Hortense’s erstwhile sweetheart Michael, one of several servicemen to whom, regardless of his color, she rented a room in her house in Earls Court.
Complications ensue, resulting in one of the play’s best scenes when a totally ill-equipped Hortense is bullied into delivering Queenie’s baby (with shades of Vivien Leigh and Butterfly McQueen in Gone With the Wind, referenced earlier in the play).
Skilfully adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundsen and directed with a strong cinematic eye by Rufus Norris, the three-hour-plus running time does the play no favours, especially as it takes quite a time before it hits its narrative stride. And while the swipes the play takes at the mindless ingratitude of both the Brits and the Yanks (who between them refer to colored people as coons, coolies, darkies and wogs) are more than justified, they tells us nothing about the bigotry of post-war Britain and the debt we owe to our black colonial soldiers that we don’t already know.
For all its good intentions and the deftness with which the narrative unfurls, I couldn’t help feeling I was watching a superior but manipulative soap opera. What demands your attention, and certainly gets it, are the dramatic visual effects, such as the hurricane that devastates Jamaica in the opening scenes, the Cinerama-like projections of a post-war Piccadilly Circus and the optimistic arrival in Britain of the Windrush passengers. John Driscoll is the wizard behind these effects, while the fluid, mobile set, which imperceptibly changes from a public cinema to a cramped, one-room flat (and much more), is by Katrina Lindsay.
Best of all, though, are the compelling performances. Ostensibly an ensemble piece with a cast of 30, the heartbeats that propel this ambitious enterprise to its ultimate success belong to Leah Harvey as the stalwart Hortense, CJ Beckford as the personable Michael, Aisling Loftus as the no-nonsense, working-class Queenie, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr as easy-going Gilbert and Andrew Rothney, terrific as Queenie’s seriously unappealing husband.
After enduring so much hardship and disappointment, Levy/Edumundson’s immigrants and Queenie enjoy a happy ending of sorts, which, after three long hours, is clearly what audiences want. But given the lengthy buildup, the final scene struck me as something of an anti-climax.
Though Small Island is far less challenging than other recent marathons, such as The Lehman Trilogy and The Inheritance, it’s just the kind of play the National, with its infinite resources, should be doing.