09 May 2019, The Tablet

A tale of two women


A tale of two women
 

Small Island
National Theatre, London

Two recent events add dramatic shadow to the National Theatre’s version of Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel, Small Island. As three of the main characters emigrate from Jamaica to 1950s England on the HMT Empire Windrush, the political scandal over the withholding of UK citizenship from Caribbean immigrants deepens the play’s suggestion that racism remains a problem in Britain, the book’s title referring to the land mass in the English Channel as much as the one in the West Indies. And Levy’s death in February, aged 62, poignantly means that we are paying tribute to a completed career rather than enjoying a continuing one.

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, staged by National artistic director Rufus Norris, initially alternates between Hortense, during her childhood and training as a teacher in Jamaica, and Queenie, a white Londoner. The latter ultimately unites the plot lines by becoming landlady to Hortense and her husband, Gilbert, a Jamaican who served in the RAF during the war, alongside a friend, Michael, who has significant involvements with both main female characters.

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