Small Island – review

“The play does exactly what you want theatre to do; It takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions whilst forcing you to reflect on society"
National Theatre
Review by: Christina Nicole
afridiziak ratings
Published: Tuesday 08 March 2022, 11:00am

Leemore Marrett Jr and Leonie Elliott in Small Island (c) Johan Persson
Leemore Marrett Jr and Leonie Elliott in Small Island (c) Johan Persson

Having watched Small Island at the National a few years ago and being left in deep reflection over the constant disrespect the Windrush generation endured; I was intrigued to see how a new cast would take on this thought-provoking story.  The new cast breathed fresh life into the play and revealed different sides to the story that made it feel contemporary and exciting.

Small Island is a tragic love story that tells the story of a young Jamaican school teacher, Hortense (Leonie Elliott) who yearns for more in life. As a child she was sold the dream that her ‘golden skin’ would be her ticket to success in ‘The Motherland’ (Britain). However, the dream doesn’t match reality. Hortense forces herself to marry ex-airman Gilbert (Leemore Marrett Jr) so that she can move with him to London, despite her heart belonging to her childhood sweetheart; RAF pilot Michael (Elliot Barnes-Worrell). However, Michael’s heart belongs to a woman named Queenie (Mirren Mack), a white Lincolnshire farmers’ daughter.  This love triangle takes a turn when Gilbert and Hortense become lodgers in Queenie’s home after the war ends – allowing the characters’ stories to connect.

Not only was the play thought provoking, it was also upbeat, energetic, and playful. The new cast came with an explosive energy that lit the stage. They made the painful scenes easier to digest, with their own humorous take on the words.

Although they are newlyweds, Gilbert and Hortense’s relationship is far from blissful. They are forced to navigate racism, abuse and discrimination together, whilst living in a tiny bedroom and barely knowing one another. With no connection or intimacy, their relationship becomes as stiff as old boots, leaving both feeling isolated in London. Though through unforeseen circumstances, they are forced to make a life changing decision that unites their relationship and provides a space for love to grow.

The 2004 novel by Andrea Levy has been given a new spark by director Rufus Norris. The play does exactly what you want theatre to do; It takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions whilst forcing you to reflect on society. Small Island allows its audience to learn about the Windrush generation and gain an appreciation for the impact the Caribbean had on the UK when people came to Britain to restore it after the war. It also leaves you feeling uncomfortable to see how Britain mistreated (and still treats) black people. But being uncomfortable can be good.

Elliot Barnes-Worrell and Leonie Elliott in Small Island (c) Johan Persson
Elliot Barnes-Worrell and Leonie Elliott in Small Island (c) Johan Persson

Not only was the play thought provoking, it was also upbeat, energetic, and playful. The new cast came with an explosive energy that lit the stage. They made the painful scenes easier to digest, with their own humorous take on the words.

Every character was outstanding and performed tremendously. They brought energy, charisma and developed a real connection with the audience. I particularly loved Hortense, Gilbert, and Queenie. The three lead characters were vibrant, courageous, and fierce.

Leonie Elliott impeccably embodied the character of Hortense. She was prim, stubborn, elegant, and ambitious; exactly how you would expect Hortense to be. She also gave Hortense a sparkle, making her appear vulnerable yet vibrant, gutsy, and charming. She was able to take the audience along with her across an array of emotions – making us laugh when telling us how she walked into the broom cupboard, and weep when she waved goodbye to Gilbert. Hortense was a thrill to watch and did an outstanding job.

Gilbert (Leemore Marrett Jr) also was excellent. He brought humour and swagger to the character whilst being playful and charming. He was a hero throughout and gained the respect from the audience.

Leonie Elliott, David Webber, Sandra James-Young, Flo Wilson and Elliot Barnes-Worrell in Small Island (c) Johan Persson
Leonie Elliott, David Webber, Sandra James-Young, Flo Wilson and Elliot Barnes-Worrell in Small Island (c) Johan Persson

Queenie (Mirren Mack) was funny and charismatic. She showed vulnerability and strength. She made the audience laugh with her witty comments and cry when she was faced with the dark realities of life as she had to give up everything she loved. She did a wonderful job of taking on the character and was a joy to watch.

Small Island was a joy to watch and made me proud of my Jamaican heritage. It made me reflect on how courageous my grandparents were during the Windrush. It made me laugh, kiss my teeth, and shed a tear – all whilst allowing me to reflect and learn more.  

The set design by Katrina Lindsay was perfect for the play and enabled Norris’ ideas to come to life. The set didn’t need too many fancy props or elaborate scene changes, as the acting stole the show, however I loved the use of digital screens, revolving floors, trapdoors, and a gory pig being butchered. Using simple images, Norris effectively transported the audience to different locations that looked and felt believable. From the cast and screens creating a dramatic hurricane in Jamaica, to hundreds of people boarding the Windrush ship; the set was able to provide the perfect backdrop to the acting.

Although I often struggle to sit through 3-hour plays, I enjoyed every minute of this performance. Each scene left me wanting more. The acting was exceptional, and the story felt more than ever relevant to society. With the news constantly bombarding us with World War 3 predictions – I found solace in many of the stories told throughout the play. It gave me a glimmer of hope that through tragedy, great people become heroes and that we all have a chance to make a change.

Mirren Mack & Martin Hutson in Small Island (c) Johan Persson
Mirren Mack & Martin Hutson in Small Island (c) Johan Persson

Small Island was a joy to watch and made me proud of my Jamaican heritage. It made me reflect on how courageous my grandparents were during the Windrush. It made me laugh, kiss my teeth, and shed a tear – all whilst allowing me to reflect and learn more.

It was entertaining from the start to finish and is now one of my favourite plays that I have seen in a long time. This will certainly be one to watch again and I would recommend it to everyone.

NEED TO KNOW: Small Island is at the National Theatre until 30 April 2022 | See listing

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Four
Having watched Small Island at the National a few years ago and being left in deep reflection over the constant disrespect the Windrush generation endured; I was intrigued to see how a new cast would take on this thought-provoking story.  The new cast breathed...small-island-national-at-the-theatre