Friday, June 28, 2019

'Small Island' based on the novel by Andrea Levy, adapted by Helen Edmundson

28 June 2019

I have written here before about Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’ – one of my favourite novels of recent years – a moving tale of Caribbean immigrants to the UK after the Second World War which manages to show you events through the eyes of each of the main protagonists so that you amazingly find yourself simultaneously sympathising with both sides of the racial prejudice at the heart of the story. It’s a brilliant novel and I had some trepidation about going to see the NTLive screening of Rufus Norris’s National Theatre production of Helen Edmundson’s stage adaptation of ‘Small Island’ at the Odeon in Milton Keynes on Thursday. Much as I knew I would enjoy revisiting Andrea Levy’s rich characters, I worried that the theatrical version would have to reduce a long and complex book so much that the best aspects might be lost. I need not have worried. Helen Edmundson has created a very inventive play of two halves which works extremely well. Whereas the novel starts with the arrival in post-war London, from Jamaica, of Hortense and Gilbert and then fills in the back story of each of the main characters through lengthy flashbacks, the stage version uses the flashbacks to create a linear, chronological first half. Rufus Norris uses the vast stage of the Olivier Theatre to create an epic, cinematic story, spanning decades and continents. After the interval the second half of the play starts with Hortense and Gilbert arriving in London and tells their ‘present day’ story as a more straightforward play-within-the-play, claustrophobically focussed on two rooms in Queenie’s house. By the time we get to this main story of West Indian immigrants coping with the harsh realities of 1940s London, we already know each character well. It’s an incredibly emotional story – funny, moving and shocking. It was great to be in a packed cinema to experience the collective gasps of the audience at some of the viciously racist language. And the acting was excellent, with the two female leads – Leah Harvey as Hortense and Aisling Loftus as Queenie – both outstanding. My only slight disappointment was with the portrayal of Queenie’s husband, Bernard. I think Andrea Levy’s greatest achievement in the novel was to allow the reader despise this most horribly racist bully, before filling in his backstory (particularly his experiences in the RAF in Burma and India) and making us shocked to find we can begin to find some sympathy for Bernard. In the play I felt the actor playing Bernard was too young: in the early scenes he came across as a socially awkward young man who was slightly too likeable. And because Bernard’s wartime experiences are cut from the play, and only briefly referred to in passing, we don’t really get the chance to see events from his point of view, making him seem jarringly unredeemed at the end. But apart from this slightly missed opportunity, the National Theatre production of ‘Small Island’ was truly excellent and it was wonderful to see it attracting a truly diverse audience – both in the theatre and the cinema.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home