On 21st June 1948, HMT Empire Windrush docked at the port of Tilbury near London. Carrying hundreds of men, women and children from Jamaica, one thing was clear – all longed for a better life, a chance to leave their small island and begin anew, in England, the ‘mother country’. A landmark event, it appeared that those first steps off the ship, and the supposed racial integration that would follow, would herald the birth of a multicultural Britain. However, these passengers did not receive the welcome they had come to expect.
In 2018, this ‘Windrush Generation’ were denied legal rights, benefits and medical care, were detained, and many threatened with deportation (whilst some were deported), as changes in constitution meant that unless they could prove their right to live and work in the UK, they could no longer remain. As such proof had not before been required, many lacked the relevant documentation, and it was declared that they were living in the UK illegally.
In the wake of this scandal, as we continue to suffer from its effects, the National Theatre could not have chosen a more resoundingly resonant production to stage than ‘Small Island‘, a devastatingly handsome production adapted by Helen Edmundson from Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning novel.
Hortense dreams of becoming a teacher in England, Queenie dreams of leaving her farming days behind, and Gilbert dreams of becoming a lawyer.
Telling the stories that are not often told, we travel from Jamaica to England with the characters that dream of a better life, and share with them their hardships, their losses, and their joys, as collectively they long for a better life.
The two child actors that portray a young Hortense and Michael are sensational, and prove that age is no barrier to acting, and to bravely expressing oneself upon the stage. Despite their youth, their performances are so cleverly, skilfully nuanced, and so detailed, giving a depth and emotional range to their young characters, establishing personality traits that are continued into their older selves.
Leah Harvey is breathtaking as Hortense. Taken away from her mother at a young age, she is brought up by her aunt and uncle. Raised upon good moral principles and manners, she is content enough, frequently wreaking mischief with her cousin Michael, and clings to the hope that her golden skin indicates the ‘golden life’ she will have, a life she believes she must go to England to live. She becomes a teaching assistant to Amy Forrest’s hysterical Mrs Ryder, but when Michael returns home from boarding school and demonstrates his passion for Mrs Ryder, a heartbroken Hortense is ever more determined to leave this life behind her, and pursue the life she believes she is destined for. She marries Gilbert, who boards the HMT Empire Windrush, with the promise that he will send for her once he finds suitable accommodation. It does not suit Hortense, however, and she is shocked, horrified, disgusted, at how Gilbert has been living, and expects her to live. She arrives in England with her nose in the air and airs and graces in abundance, to find a post-war England somewhat lacking in the like.
Eventually, she determines to make the best of it, and works hard to clean and make nice the one room, encompassing bathroom, dining room and kitchen, she and Gilbert must share. Seeking to pursue her dream, she visits the Department for Education, only to find that here, her qualifications amount to nothing, and that she must retake them. Harvey’s exceptional, spirited performance allows us to see through her eyes the dreams and hopes of people like her dashed by a harsh, brutal, bitter reality. This woman, who longed for a freedom she believed only moving to England could afford her, is disillusioned as her illusions are shattered for no other reason that the colour of her skin.
Aisling Loftus is exquisite as the lively, down-to-earth and charismatic Queenie. Growing up on a farm in Lincolnshire, she helped her parents with the family butcher business. Longing to escape this life, however, she jumps at the chance to work at her aunt’s confectionery in London, and here she turns the heads of several men, including Bernard Bligh who, after suffering a personal loss, she marries, though is relatively unmoved by their subsequent placid relationship. When Bernard joins the RAF, Queenie is left to keep the house, and look after his elderly and shell-shocked father Arthur.
Initially to help with the war effort, and later to cover her debts, Queenie begins to take in lodgers by opening her house to servicemen, and we see her head for business as she keeps the house afloat and her debts paid with a great and head-strong show of independence. A genuine, honest and admirable character, Queenie publicly and privately defends her Jamaican friends, sympathetic to their plight. However, she too can be found guilty of racism in her subtle remarks, showing just how easy it is to cross that line.
Gershwyn Eustache Jnr is remarkable as Gilbert. With a good education behind him, Gilbert hopes to become a lawyer. He joins the RAF in the face of his friends’ mockery, and fights for Britain. After returning to Jamaica, his thoughts turn once more to England, and he plans to settle there, hoping to find a decent life. He wanted to go so desperately, that he married ‘spitfire’ Hortense, who agreed to cover the cost of his travel providing he sent for her once he had settled. This was his price, and her expected, he deserved, a friendly welcome.
Finding kindness in Queenie, such kindness was a rarity, and it is shameful how Gilbert is treated by the majority of those he meets in England, including cinema ushers and colleagues. Eustache Jnr’s performances is incredible, so animated and bubbly, and he imbues his character with enormous likeability. When it really counts, and stands up for himself, and for all those mistreated and victimised, and towards the end of the production, he delivers one of the most raw, biting and potent speeches of the entire play, which he delivers with unshakeable passion and feeling.
CJ Beckford’s mischievous Michael returns from boarding school a man, one whose head is filled with thoughts contrary to those instilled by his pious father. A stranger in his own home, he joins the RAF, and his journey sees him becoming entangled with more of the play’s characters. Andrew Rothney is the socially awkward Bernard, whose timidness dissipates during his racist outbursts towards the end of the play. Haunted by his actions and experiences during the war, undergoing a stint in prison, he does not return home immediately after being demobilised, instead staying away from four months due to feelings of unworthiness.
David Fielder’s Arthur, though a non-speaking role, is one of the most telling characters, his jerking, spasmodic movement speaking volumes, telling of a man broken by the part he played in the First World War, that is rendered trembling in terror at the sound of overhead aircraft, his performance powerfully affecting.
The company as a whole is tremendous, each member starkly contributing to this significant and necessary sharing of the real life suffering of so many. Special mention must go to Beatie Edney, John Hastings, Adam Ewan, Cavan Clarke, Paul Bentall and Trevor Laird, each of whom played a whole host of characters, each with a distinct personality and a different accent to the last, the transition between them seamless.
The use of virtual reality technology brings with it a particular emphasis on that second word – reality. This real play telling real stories is given real context with the projection of footage relating to the Windrush Generation, and the journey to England. With actors integrated with this footage, the very real truths of this production are given a striking clarity. Interspersed with this footage are occasional projections of weather conditions, and frequently, footage of the sea. This exploitation of our Jamaican characters being overseas enhances their sense of otherness, resulting in their label as foreigners. The physical divide created by the ocean is made figurative when the distance is closed, but the hatred and subsequent alienation is not.
Particularly poignant is the footage of the HMT Empire Windrush setting sail, its many passengers smiling and waving, whilst our actors cleverly ‘board’, all truly believing they will find a better life. As they leave behind the vibrancy and colour of Jamaica for the monochromatic tones of a broken England, the events of 2018 haunt us.
Following World War 2, when the Jamaican servicemen return to England, they find that another war rages, an interracial conflict, one where words are as weapons – hostile, piercing, derogatory, vile. At this point in time, Jamaica was a part of the British Empire, and its servicemen hoped for a friendly welcome when they arrived. Instead, they were greeted with hatred, bitterness, resentment, and deep-seated racism. There was, firm as ever, a clear divide between races, talk of ‘ours’ and ‘yours’. There were those whose racism was blunt and obvious, those who employ the most foul language and expect Jamaicans to step off the pavement into the street to let white people walk by, and those for whom racist subtleties were the result of an innocent ignorance, those who ‘don’t mind being seen with them’.
Rather than being welcomed and accepted as citizens, our Jamaican characters are treated as guests, lodgers, temporary inconveniences. The are alienated, segregated, degraded, humiliated, objects of prejudice, hatred, fear and curiosity. They are kept at arm’s length and treated with suspicion, and blamed when they are innocent – as when Gilbert is bullied at then attacked by a colleague, yet he is the one threatened with unemployment, a victim of the sense of entitlement and privilege of his white coworkers.
Amidst the scandal, the conflict and the bloodshed, ‘Small Island’ is fantastically funny, though not at the expense of respect to its serious subject matter. There is also a constant underlying message of hope, existent in the dreams, the imagination, and the uncertain possibilities clung to by the play’s characters.
A play that asks the difficult questions and uncovers difficult truths, this is an honest, raw and textured production of great scope, that has the audience howling with laughter at uncooked chips and filthy basins, gasping and sucking their teeth at the ignorance and racism of some characters, and moved to tears at the suffering and injustices of others. We are forced to feel everything from horror and sympathy, to understanding and admiration – admiration for the capacity for determined strength, relentless endurance, powerful resolve and unyielding hope that our characters possess.
This production, this very human production, vividly portrays the potential for inhumanity by a flawed humanity. Based on real stories, these characters are profoundly realistic and, though from different backgrounds, all are asking the same questions – ‘Who am I?’. ‘How did I get here?’. Through three intertwined stories, we see a powerful snapshot of a collective group of people, who are really not so different, that have a shared sense of longing, a shared sense of determination, and a shared hope – a hope for a better life, in a better world.
All of our characters experience love, joy, happiness, sadness, pain and loss. In this sense, there exists an equality. Irrespective of skin colour, they are bound together by their humanity. And yet, it is because of a person’s skin that they are marked as different, as lesser, as inferior.
‘Small Island’ boldly questions this unjust inequality, it demands an answer. And the answer it finds is that skin colour should not entitle, should not engender privilege, should not cause anybody to lord it over another. One person is no better or worse, worth no more or less, than another. All have suffered together, and all should work together – work for a decent home, work, self-respect and love.